The Grifters: 10 Stories of Scams and Scammers Part 1 of 2
Interview by Haley Cohen Gilliland and Andy Wright
Post From Issue No. 22 Belief
We learn about hustles and lies from all sides of a con: scam victims, scam baiters, and the scammers themselves.
WE ARE LIVING IN THE AGE OF THE SCAM. Catfishing, advanced video fakery, multilevel marketing, Instagram lifestyle gurus, the Fyre Festival, Dirty John, Trump Moscow, a pyramid scheme involving actual pyramids: scratch any news story these days, and fraud falls out. But what are these scammers really thinking? And what is it like to be one of their victims?
We talked to ten people who have been on many sides of the equation to find out what motivates scammers (and how they pulled it off, at least for a while), hear the stories of those whose lives were thrown off-balance by a con—and find out how some anti-scam vigilantes try to bring the liars down.
The Literary Hustler’s First Victim
Judy Reeves, 76 - Former director of the Writing Center in San Diego, California
Before she would go on to trick literary figures on both coasts as fabulous writer and host “Anna March,” the person then-known as “Delaney Anderson” ran a successful Southern California nonprofit into the ground. The alleged scam artist’s legal name is Nancy Kruse.
I had always wanted to be a different kind of writer. Not a commercial writer, not a journalist, but a writer’s writer. I’d had a business with my husband, writing marketing materials for alcoholism treatment centers and addiction centers. After my husband died, I left San Diego and traveled the world for a while.
When I got back from my travels, I decided to form a writing community with a partner. It was 1993. Our mission was to create a gathering place for writers and readers and people who wanted to learn to write. Our instructors were working writers. We split the fee with them 50/50.
The woman who was running the front desk for us, doing administrative work, embezzled some money by writing checks to herself. Then my partner left and moved to Colorado. So it was a dark time for the Writing Center when Delaney Anderson came into the picture.
At the time, some of us knew Delaney Anderson was a pseudonym and that her “real” name was Nancy Kruse. I think she told us this; it wasn’t a secret. That she used a pseudonym when she came to San Diego didn’t seem a big deal. Lots of people change their names when they change their lives.
Delaney probably saw one of our flyers, and she came into the center and we started talking. This was the summer of 1996, pretty much before the internet. I liked her so much. I loved her, even. She was just so bright and had all of these ideas. She worked hard for us and really put in the hours. I had a partner to work with again.
She came on as a volunteer, so she wasn’t getting paid. No résumé was given, no résumé was asked for. When someone is volunteering and you’re just trying to keep things afloat, you don’t call to check background information.
She told a lot of stories, anecdotal stories. One story, which we all laughed at, was that her mother had worked for Jimmy Carter in the White House, and that she would iron pleats in Amy Carter’s little Catholic schoolgirl dress. We all thought that was pretty ridiculous.
Later on, Delaney took over as the executive director, and I was still doing programming. The organization moved from our location in the Gaslamp Quarter to Hillcrest. She said we could afford this new, bigger place, so we moved and started really bringing people in.
Delaney took us further than I had ever taken us, and some of the things that she did were so flamboyant. She did a fund-raiser for us, the Literary Lights Gala, and she brought Paris Review editor George Plimpton out here. God knows he was probably never paid the money that he was promised.
She used people’s credit cards to pay for things. We did a literary tour of Europe and had an instructor take five or six people to all of these places.
In the summer of 1998, we got evicted. It turned out she hadn’t paid the rent. A volunteer found an eviction notice on the door early one morning and called me. I called an emergency board meeting, and we started discovering all of these things that had happened.
She had not been paying instructors for over two years. Employees thought they had insurance that had been paid for, but when one of the staff members needed medical care and he tried to use his insurance, he found out he didn’t have any. Their taxes had not been paid. Their withholding had not been paid. On so many levels, it was just so wrong, and so many people were hurt.
I tried to call Delaney to get her to come to this emergency board meeting. The next morning at dawn, there was a note on the screen door at my apartment: I resign. I don’t work for you anymore. We never heard from her again. We were devastated financially and also now had a terrible reputation, so we were forced to close our doors.
I don’t think she came in thinking, I’m going to scam these people, because we were at a low point in our organization. It’s not like you could come in and make a lot of money off this. She was a writer, and I think she was looking for a place where she could be a writer and be with a writing community.
Like I said, I don’t think that she came with the intention of, I can get into that nonprofit organization and build it and take this money. How could she do that? We had nothing. We had a center, we had a mailing list, we had members and these volunteers, but there was no money.
To me, of course, it was about the betrayal of trust. That is the most painful part of it. You look at yourself as an individual and say: “You know, somehow or other, I allowed this to happen to me. I got taken advantage of. How could that be? How could I have been so stupid?”
But then you’re vulnerable, you trust. What are you going to do in the world if you can’t trust? Here’s the thing I think I have learned: that if you have that little tickle in your throat, if you have that little bell going off, pay attention.
At the time, everybody trusted Delaney. But “Nancy Kruse,” whom she became again when she escaped San Diego, was, for me, another level of realization of what a scammer, con artist, and liar this person was. We liked her because she was so charming and clever.
You know, if she wrote fiction as well as she lied, then she should win awards. Imagine if she used her ability for good, you know? People like that, because they’re so damn believable, if they could believe in something good, they could change the world. Good people do it all the time.
We had worked so hard to create this gathering place, this center for writers of all kinds, for the community. And it was destroyed for reasons I still can’t fathom and I still regret.
The Scam Baiter
Wayne May, 48 - Founder of Scam Survivors, Swansea, Wales
A common online grift is to tell someone you have money for them, but your records show they’re dead. All they need to do to collect their riches is pay you a fee to fix the mistake.
I started off in 2005, just looking around on the internet one evening for something funny, when I stumbled into something called the scam-baiting community. I sat there and read through various forums and thought this was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen.
I decided to join up, created an account on a forum, and started contacting scammers. At the time, you could go onto the forum and look at scam emails other people would post and reply to a scammer. So I did that.
I’m a huge comedy fan. I love comedy. And the comedic aspect of it was what caught me. When I call up a scammer, it’s almost like doing improv comedy. Instead of having the audience shout out suggestions, the scammer will say something, and you have to come up with something to take that in a funny direction.
And I thought I was rather good at it. Then people started contacting me directly, saying they’ve been scammed or a relative of theirs is being scammed: Would you be willing to bait that scammer?
The purpose of the bait was usually to make sure that other people knew about the scam, or to prove to a person that they were being scammed. After six months to a year, my priorities changed from just messing with the scammers for fun to helping victims.
In 2012, me and one of my good friends created Scam Survivors. What we do is post up as much information as we can. Then we work with banking associations and website hosts to damage the scam as much as we can, by shutting down fake websites and freezing their assets.
There’s a scam called “Dead or Alive,” in which scammers claim that they’ve been told you’re dead, and they have money that is owed to you, supposedly, but it’s gonna go to somebody else now that you’re dead. If you’re not dead, then reply to let them know that you’re not dead. Then they ask for fees to supposedly send you this imaginary money that’s coming to you.
So I call one of these scammers up and say, “I’m not dead! Look, I’m obviously not dead. But thanks a bunch, because now my soon-to-be ex-wife is going to use that email in court as proof that I am dead, and she’s going to get all my money and all my assets.”
The scammer gets sucked into my plight, because he doesn’t think that I would be lying to him. If I didn’t believe what he was saying, why would I reply to him? Why would I actually call him up?
During this conversation, Kari Anne, who is the other admin on the site, is pretending to be my wife. She’s actually thousands of miles away—we’re on a Skype conference call.
She starts thanking the scammer, because now she’s going to get all my money. We start arguing; it gets worse and worse. The scammer is panicking because he doesn’t know what’s going on.
Then I tell him that I’m gonna get my gun. Now, there is no gun—we play this audio clip that another faker had made of Kari Anne screaming, going, “No, no! Oh, please!”
I shoot my “wife” and the scammer immediately hangs up the phone. When we call him back, he's now convinced that I have shot my wife because of the email that he sent.
We tell him he's gonna get blamed for this—an “if I’m going down, you’re going down” kind of thing. He is obviously panicking and tells me that he’s going to call the authorities on me because I’ve killed my wife.
We keep him going for as long as we can, and then eventually I say, “I have to go, the police are knocking on my door.” I hang up on him. We then try to call him again, as the police officer. Because the plan now is that we’re gonna call him up and say, “This is the last number that was on the phone, can you tell me what was happening?”
And the phone doesn’t get answered. We try it for weeks. We keep on trying this phone number, and nobody ever answers the phone. We can’t get through. Now we know that anybody who’s had that email and tried to call that number won’t get through to anybody.
At the end of the day, these people are still scammers. I’ve done this for so long, I can’t be emotionally involved with them. I’ve talked to tens of thousands of scammers in my time. I would be a shivering wreck, rocking back and forth, if I let it get to me.
I try to be more trusting in my real life, because these people that I deal with—the scammers always lying to me, always pretending to be somebody else—always have that motive of getting money from me. I want to believe that everybody I deal with in real life is genuine. As a general rule, I like to believe that there are good people.
The Disaster Scam Victim
Thomas Blaney, 60 - Certified public accountant, Katonah, New York
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a number of disaster relief nonprofits, including Blaney’s, became the target of Russian scammers, who put up a fake donation page and collected money—supposedly on his organization’s behalf.
I’m a CPA. I’m a partner in an accounting firm called PKF O’Connor Davies. In the accounting world, it’s not that bigger is better, but we’re the firm that has the largest not-for-profit practice, probably, in the country. Basically, half of our practice is just for not-for-profit entities.
In the summer, I live in a community called Breezy Point, which is a blue-collar community in the borough of Queens, New York; it’s a little area that overlooks the harbor. As boats come into New York City, you pass by Breezy Point. A good number of the people who live in Breezy Point are cops, firemen, schoolteachers, nurses, a lot of law enforcement folks, FBI guys, ATF—jobs of that nature.
Six and a half years ago, we had a very bad hurricane called Superstorm Sandy, which was disastrous for the Breezy Point community. Everybody got hit hard: New Jersey, certain parts of New York. But Breezy Point is basically a co-op of about 2,800 families, and everyone except maybe 100 families was affected.
Probably half of those people lost their houses. Unlike myself, many live there all year ‘round. There was a fire that also broke out during the hurricane, and it was one of the largest residential fires in New York City history. A lot of folks forget about that. I think about 30 houses burned down.
I had a summer bungalow. It was a four-bedroom, very small, 900-square-foot cottage, the second house in from the ocean. Superstorm Sandy came and crushed the house in front of me. My bungalow was moved six feet and came off its foundation. It was red-flagged by the city of New York; it had to be demolished.
For me, it was just a summer place, but my best friends who live there all year—it was their entire house that they lost. It was terrible.
There’s a board of directors for the co-op, and somebody said, you should start a not-for-profit out here to help these families that really are suffering. A disaster-relief organization. A 501(c)(3) not-for-profit was set up in record time. I got a call from the past chairman of the co-op. He said, “Can you be our treasurer?” I said, “Sure. We’ll make sure we set it up properly and the money goes to the families that really need it.”
One day, a buddy of mine says, “Oh! I sent you a donation.” And he goes, “It was funny, I saw the name like”—I forget what it was now, but basically it was a Russian name. And this is an Irish community.
I would see Dennis, Brian, Shaun, Seamus. A couple of Italian people, one to two Jewish people, but there’s not really that many Russians who live here. Definitely not on my nonprofit board. He goes, “Oh, yeah, I saw two or three Russian names, collecting the money out of Florida.” I said, “Florida? Ah, it’s a scam.”
I went online and Googled “Breezy Point disaster relief” and saw somebody had thrown up a website. “Help out the community,” a picture of the American flag, a picture of a couple of cops and firemen, and it said to send your money to this entity.
And as soon as I saw that, I called the New York State Attorney General’s Office. I happen to know people there from my line of work. They took it over from there, and they closed that down immediately. So I think, fortunately, there was very little money that went there before it was spotted. But, geez. I said that can’t happen to us—but it did happen to us.
You know, this is going to sound terrible, but because I’m a businessman, it did not affect my emotions. I think I have more hatred for these contractors who came in and scammed people who were trying to fix things up—folks who would come in and grab a deposit, and you never see them again, or they didn’t have the proper licenses.
We had a tremendous amount of that at Breezy Point. These people, with the website, I never even saw. Who knows what part of the world they were in, setting up these websites.
The Daughter Of The Victim
Natalia Megas, 22 - Journalist living in Fairfax, Virginia
An older woman meets a man online who says he’s living in Europe, and they become romantically involved. All he needs is just a little bit of money to tide him over. Can she lend it to him?
My mom and I talk a lot. She didn’t initially tell me that she had gone onto this dating site. It was back in about October 2017 when she started. She’s 78 now, and the story started coming out slowly.
My whole life, my mom was constantly looking for love. Even when it didn’t work out with my dad and they separated. It wasn’t so much about getting attention; for her, it was really important to bond and just connect over conversation or shared values and ideas and activities.
She started getting a lot of responses, and then this guy contacted her, David Morris—which is not his real name. My mom ended up showing me all the emails between them. He would just shower her with compliments and talk about his life. There were so many similarities that the two of them had.
I think the thing that really caught my attention was when she first told me that this guy had the same birthdate as my dad. I just thought, “Wow. Well, that’s a coincidence.” Especially since my mom is into astrology, it really resonated with her.
She told me she thought it was too good to be true, but there were just so many things that he was saying that enticed her. He would write these really long emails. Eventually, he said he would come out and visit her in Virginia, where she lives, but he never came.
He was supposed to be somewhere in Europe. He was an engineer. That’s what he said. He had a master’s degree. I realize now that all of the things he said were because he had done research on my mom. My mom had a Facebook page that was public, and if you went to it, you could kind of see the things that she admired and valued.
I think the biggest warning sign was the photograph. He would send her photographs because she sent photographs of herself. The first one looked pretty legit.
In the second one, you could kind of tell that he took the headshot of the first photo and put it on the body of the second.
I don’t remember why I asked my mom to see the photograph, but I remember looking at it and thinking there was something off, but I couldn’t tell. Then I shared it with my husband, who said, “It’s totally Photoshopped.”
That’s when I really started searching online to find out more about this guy. I did everything from searching the email that he provided to her to searching his phone number.
There was a website that I found where both of those things appeared, and a woman had posted saying, “This is a fake profile.” The profile was on Match.com and another dating site.
When I first told my mom about my suspicions, she was very quiet, which is very unlike her because she is always very bubbly and talkative. I knew that she was just heartbroken.
For a week or two afterward, she wasn’t sure if it really was true. She kept on saying, “Well, what if this lady on the site misunderstood him? Maybe it isn’t fake. Maybe she’s fake.” That didn’t go on for too long.
Then my mom decided, for whatever reason, that she would not tell David what she knew. Instead, she would string him along to see where this would go. That’s my mom.
Soon enough, David said to my mom, “I have some financial problems. I’m getting all this money from this reward that I just won, but can you lend me some money until then?” And at that point, luckily, my mom was alerted to the fact that this might be a scam.
She called the local police, thinking that not only could they help her, but maybe they could warn others. I found out later that the local police don’t know what to do with these kinds of stories, so they didn’t really follow up and there wasn’t much they could tell her.
My mom told me she was scared. She went from experiencing this loving, blooming relationship to heartbreak, and then to fear. My mom stopped corresponding with him for a couple of days.
He insisted in emails that she call him. She just ignored it because the more you engage, the more they’ll just lure you back in, and he eventually just left the situation and she never heard back.
It was painful, because I really saw my mom happy during that time when she was corresponding with this David Morris. I could just tell in her voice when we would either meet in person or talk over the phone.
Even if she had nothing to do during the day, it didn’t matter because she was looking forward to his email. He would consistently write to her every night.
I saw her go from complete euphoria to just being really depressed about it. She would talk about it, but there was this aspect that was embarrassing as well. She told me, “What did I really think? He’d never met me in person. How could he have fallen in love with me over the phone?” It made her feel stupid.
My mom’s always been optimistic, and after this experience, she’s not so optimistic anymore. She’s also always been so naïve in her life, and she’s not as naïve anymore.
I just want to know what motivates these people. But maybe that’s the journalist in me, because since then I’ve read a lot about how these rackets are popping up in the Philippines, for instance.
And you’ve got the guy who runs the place, and they will rent these offices and maybe have ten desks and ten people on the phone all day long, just doing this. I personally just want to know what motivates them. Why are they doing this? Are they that poor? Where are their morals?
The Nigerian Romance Scammer
Anonymous, 32 - Freelance writer working in marketing, in Ibadan, Nigeria
Set up fake dating profiles, meet women online, and begin asking them for money for a variety of reasons—such as having been the victim of a robbery, or needing to leave the country.
I was born 32 years ago in Oyo State in Nigeria. I am the first-born of five children. It was a big struggle, a very big struggle. My mum worked on a poultry farm. We were always in and out of school because of a lack of money. But I can’t say that’s why I did what I did.
I got into scams in 2003, if I remember correctly. It was the “in” thing here, back then. If you weren’t doing it, you weren’t in vogue. Some of my friends were quite experienced guys who were in it way before me, and they were able to guide me on what to do.
I wanted to go to London Metropolitan University in the UK, and I felt I could maybe raise the money I needed—between £50,000 and £70,000 ($65,000–$92,000). I chose London Metropolitan University because it was near Arsenal Stadium, and I had friends at the Arsenal Football Club who could help me with an internship. I thought if I went, I could work there.
I started going to internet cafés with my friend and got help making some accounts from my “mentors.” They created accounts for me on sites like Match.com.
I would find a random photo and use that, and then look at profiles of other people on the same website and model my own profile after them. You want to make the profiles as attractive as possible.
For instance, if my audience was in California, I tried to read profiles there to see what they like. What are their hobbies? You’ll notice that people in California like going to the beach. So you want to mention that yeah, you also like the beach, so that you’re able to create something you have in common.
It’s better to wait for people to contact you of their own accord. Those are easier to get, because they like your picture or they like something about you. If you reach out to someone first, you want to read their profile.
You want to see, Oh, do they have the pictures of their cars? Have they stated how much they make per month or per year? Because you don’t want to be with somebody who is poor.
I would talk to between five and ten people on Yahoo! Personals at a time, because you’re lying a lot. Talking to 12 people, that is too much. You might forget what you have told Jennifer and mistake Jennifer for Janet. No matter how good a liar you are, you make mistakes. Therefore, to avoid mistakes, you create a note pad for each person to keep everything straight.
Most people I talked to on the phone, especially the ladies. The men—I didn’t tend to talk to the men much on the phone, unless they insisted. But talking on the phone convinces them more.
Women are desiring of attention, so they want to talk to you constantly. We talked about future plans, numbers of kids. Sometimes we discussed likes and dislikes. I had an excuse for the accent. Mostly, I told them I am actually originally from Poland but based in California.
When you have been in contact with somebody for two or three days, you take things further by going on one of those flower sites and buying flowers or a gift basket. Once they accept the flowers, it’s almost like you’re collecting their brains. They don't think anymore.
Then I try to fix an appointment with them. I tell them, “Oh, let’s meet since you’re not living far away from me.” And then the day you’re supposed to meet, you just give them a call or send them a flower again with a note in it.
Tell them you’re sorry that you have a business meeting in Africa and you won’t be able to meet them. That you’re gonna make it up to them when you come back. Most times, they understand.
Three days later, you contact them again: you’re stuck in Africa, you need money, you forgot your credit card, you had a robbery incident, etc. And before you know it, they start sending you money, because they trust you. I had someone who sent me $3,000 through Western Union. Total, I made well over $70,000 in three years. You continue to talk to them until they have no more money to give.
The only mistake I made was when I was pretending to be a woman and one of the men I was talking to—he was from Alaska—figured me out. I had a cold and my voice was kind of thick. If I didn’t have a cold when I spoke to him on the phone, he would never have figured it out, because I know how to pretend. I know how to fake my voice to be like that of a woman.
I didn’t go to London; I was helping my family with the money. My family lived a very prudent life. I was not smoking, I was not drinking, I was not womanizing; I was trying to help my family and my siblings.
Eventually, I stopped when I found out that my friends were just ... they were not really friends. They were just betrayers, asking for kickbacks. And secondly, I fell in love with a girl who thought that it was just wrong—that you can’t put your happiness on somebody’s sadness. You can’t make somebody sad and be happy yourself.
I wish I could go back and rewrite history. Of course, it’s not possible. That will always be a part of my past.
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