Pretty little liar: a true story of fraud in Canada

If you were to look up the definition of “penny pincher,” you may very well find a picture of my friend’s Uncle John. Just imagine a grandpa type, wearing a sweater he bought on sale 30 years ago, glaring at Scrooge McDuck for being so unnecessarily extravagant. There, that’s Uncle John.

For the bulk of his life, Uncle John and his wife Dina scrimped and saved, at times practically living in poverty in order to provide for their growing brood of children (note to self: refill birth control prescription, always and forever). My friend has a few old letters from her aunt and uncle, sent when Uncle John was travelling for work. Without fail, the number one topic in each of these letters was money. How much there was. How much was being spent. If they should dip into their meagre savings to take a child with a rotting tooth to the dentist. Yeah. This wasn’t the Depression, either, this was the 1950s – you know, that golden era when everyone was happy and things were perfect.

While the situation eventually improved for Uncle John and Aunt Dina, their control and focus on finances never wavered. They made sure to create a budget carefully, spent thriftily and knew exactly what was in their accounts. Which is what makes what happened after Aunt Dina passed away especially sad: Uncle John got taken by a con artist.

The man who would frown when his wife wanted to get a $15 perm ended up handing over thousands of dollars to a woman who preyed on widowers who were needy of attention. It was devastating.

How did this happen?

One day, an attractive-looking jerk knocked on the 70-year-old’s door and asked, tearfully and oh-so politely, if she could please use his phone to call her father. Without hesitation, he let her in, and the woman proceeded to call “her father” and none-too-subtly cry about her situation: she needed “her father” to wire her some money because her car had just died and she needed to get it to a mechanic. And it turned out that “her father” couldn’t do this for her right away. And so my friend’s uncle did what many a Good Samaritan would do – he opened his wallet and gave her some cash to tow the car into a shop. She wouldn’t accept it at first, but she eventually took it with a promise to repay him. And a few days later she appeared on Uncle John’s doorstep again with the money in hand.

The story would be a sweet one if it ended there, but it didn’t. Trust firmly established, the con artist became “friends” with Uncle John, becoming a regular guest for tea where she would give the widower the time and attention he needed: laughing at his puns, complimenting him on his smile and offering to make him the sweets that Aunt Dina was famous for – all while dropping hints about her money woes (including her desire to “contribute more to church fundraisers”). Before long, Uncle John had bought her an expensive “friendship ring” and decided to help her (and her “church activities”) out, with cash.

The only reason my friend’s family found out about it was because a teller at the bank, a bank he had been going to for decades, took a major – and illegal – risk and called Uncle John’s emergency contact. The teller had apparently sized up this situation pretty quickly (the con artist would often accompany Uncle John to the bank) and decided someone needed to know about this. I again have to emphasize that what this bank employee did was illegal – but everyone is very glad she did it.

To Uncle John’s great embarrassment and anger, the family suddenly became involved in the “friendship” – and so did the RCMP (turns out the “sweet young thing” was known to them). While the money he gave her couldn’t be recovered – he had freely handed it over – the con artist abruptly exited the scene. Uncle John was left to feel foolish and ashamed.

How can stories like this be prevented? There are no guarantees, but consider the following:

  • Improve your financial knowledge and get to know the different kinds of scams and frauds taking place – and share them (this story included) with friends and family members.
  • Make a point of checking in on relatives regularly, including getting to know their neighbours (who often have great powers of observation themselves!).
  • Talk to elderly relatives about having read-only access to their bank accounts, so you can monitor what’s happening but don’t have any power to withdrawal funds. This is an understandably touchy subject. You need to reiterate that you’re only interested in knowing that they’re protected. It should be noted, however, that some family members are scam artists, so elderly parents really can’t be blamed if they balk at this idea.

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