Scammers Stole All of My Grandma's Money

By Catherine Shaffer on 3 January 2008 30 comments
Photo: Dred242

The trouble started innocently enough. For as long as I can remember, Grandma bought a lottery ticket each and every week. She promised us, her children and grandchildren, that when she won (not if), she would solve all of our financial problems. Grandma was the ultimate giver. She was generous with her time, her love, and especially with food. A child of the Great Depression, she has a love of abundance, and a dread of hunger and deprivation. It is her personal tragedy that these motives led her to total financial ruin late in life, as she willingly handed her life savings, over $100,000, to con artists and thieves.

In addition to buying lottery tickets, Grandma liked to send away for offers and sweepstakes she found in magazines and newspapers. This is when things began to get bad. Naturally, she gave away her phone number and address when she filled out these forms, and that led to receiving more offers in the mail, which she filled out in turn. She loved the idea of winning a lot of money, and she was a regular with Publisher's Clearing House. The thing is, some of these sweepstakes offers are less than honest in their presentation. They come packaged to look as if you've already won something, and you only have to send in for your winnings. The outside of the envelope trumpets "You've won $10,000 [Your Name Here]!" and you have to read carefully to find out that you haven't actually won anything. This is relatively harmless when all they want to collect from you is your address and phone number, but not all of the mailings were so benign. Grandma began to get mailings asking for entry fees in order to win the big prize, and she sent these willingly, assuming that for her small entry fee she was going to get a big payout. She never seemed to understand that this was a lie.

Eventually, pure scammers got a hold of Grandma's address and phone number. They sent letters asking for thousands of dollars in exchange for some promised jackpot. Grandma sent it. She began to go through her savings accounts, spending money rapidly on one scam after another. My Aunt saw what was going on and became alarmed, but she could not convince Grandma that these people were stealing the money. Although the activity was illegal, there was no way to track down the scammers or hold them accountable. She convinced Grandma to change her phone number, but Grandma simply gave it away again, and soon enough the scammers found her again. My aunt, desperate, contacted the state attorney general, who tried to help by personally calling Grandma to talk her out of giving away any of her money. This didn't work. Grandma was convinced, remember, that it was not a matter of if she would win the big jackpot, but when. It's a fair bet that she was also a full-fledged gambling addict by this point--about five years ago, at age 85.

The scamming continued, and Grandma blew through her savings at a rapid rate. The scams became increasingly less subtle. For example, someone would send her a check for $3000. Then the someone would call and tell her they made a mistake, and if she would return their $3000 (by personal check), they would send her $6000. Can you see how this works? The original check is bad. So it bounces, and Grandma has sent them $3000, and not received anything. Of course she never hears from them again. Eventually, all of her money was gone. Over $100,000.

This is the point in the article where I'm supposed to tell you what to do about this, or how to keep your parents or grandparents from being scammed. The problem is, I've got nothing. If your loved one will not defend him or herself, then there is nothing you can do but watch it happen, like a car crash drawn out over a decade.

You could look at this from the outside, and say that the problem could be solved this way or that way. Why didn't someone seize power-of-attorney over Grandma's finances? Well, my Aunt tried, and didn't succeed. The courts were not able to find Grandma mentally incompetent, although they were as horrified by the situation as anyone. My Aunt merely permanently damaged her relationship with her mother, replacing love and trust with bitterness, anger, and resentment. My Aunt also tried things like talking to the bank manager, asking him not to allow Grandma to withdraw all of her money. Unfortunately, there is no way within the law for the bank manager to help with this. And of course she tried talking to Grandma. Tried. And tried. And tried.

Recently, Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, which finally sheds some light on her bizarre behavior. She is starting to receive treatment. But nothing will bring her savings back. She is penniless, and has stopped sending money to scam artists only because she has nothing left to send. Her health is very poor, and she could benefit from a home health aid and a housekeeper, but the money she would have used to pay for these services is gone. She will be taken care of, because she has children and grandchildren who love her. But that's not what she wanted. She wanted to take care of us.

I don't think there's anything we can do, or could have done, individually, to keep this from happening to her. But she's not the only one. Can we change the law to be tougher on scammers, to crack down harder on misleading mailings or phone calls (none of this happened on the internet)? Can we do a better job protecting the privacy of senior citizens and other vulnerable populations? What about tweaks to banking laws to prevent people from being taken in by bad check scams? There has to be some way to hold these thieves accountable, and get back money that was stolen.

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DD's picture

Sadly, your grandma's story seems all too familiar to my grandma's.  Recently, my grandma was scammed by some low life who claimed to be government agents investigating my grandma's bank account and scammed the old lady out of about $31k.
The scammers called her to forward money to their government account which would then be forward back after a hour or two of investigation.  to ensure my grandma didn't ask any questions, they told her it was urgent investigation that she can't tell her children about, otherwise, the investigation would stall and her savings would be in trouble. Well, it was only after the money's been transfered that my grandma realized it was a fraud.
The thing is, this scam clearly sounded fishy with red flags flying throughout that most people would know is a scam, but since the old lady wasn't as sharp as she used to be after the death of my grandpa and of old age, she fell a victim of a crime that happens way too much nowadays.
Personally, I'm angry, not only at the disgusting people who prey on old people, but more importantly, I'm angry at the bank that let this transaction of money happened.
The person that handled my grandma's account has known her for years, yet, the bank person failed to notify my grandma of the suspicious transfer of fund to an account that my grandma has never dealt with.
Needless to say, after the scam, my grandma was tremendously shaken emotionally, which definitely affect her mental health as well as the physical health.  I think there should be tougher laws and more safeguards in place for these seemingly faceless crimes.  The bank needs to be more responsible for our financial wealth.  and it just makes me sick that these bad people got away with these crimes and continue to scam old people out of their savings.

Guest's picture

It's the same situation. for YEARS she has been doing the lottery thing and filling out every. Single. Sweepstakes entry she can get her hands on. Three months or so ago I found out she was sending money to scam artists. BORROWING money to send to scam artists who promised her that she'd won a large sum of money. All she had to do was pay this fee or that fee.

And today she got two checks (totally about $9000) that she deposited. She even opened a brand new checking account with one of the checks. They're both fake - *I* called the issuing banks to check. Luckily she's OC about copying an dkeeping paperwork so I was able to verify that they were fakes.

We have talked to herand TALKED to her and she absolutely refuses to listen. And refuses to change her phone number and now, I find out from this article that POA is a lost cause. So I have to sit by and WATCH while this woman WILLFULLY screws up her life and finances?

Don't get me wrong. I'm furious with the scammers but I'm also absolutely LIVID with my grandmother for COMPLETELY REFUSING to listen to us. And because she CONTINUES to do these things even after being scammed.

It's like dealing with an addict. She LIES to us and HIDES things from us. She tells us it won't happen again. I live right next door to her and have HEARD her talking to these people. IT KEEPS happening.

If we can stage interventions on addicts who insist on continuing self-destructive behaviour, we should be able to stage interventions on our parents and grandparents who are exhibiting the same behaviors.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for writing this article. I had a friend discuss a similar situation involving her dad, who was constantly entering contests though he didn't send checks in large amounts to anyone as far as I know. As I recall, she would get involved directly with the companies, canceling orders, asking to stop sending items, etc. I think when the companies realized that there was someone watching out, they backed off. She said he would have never entered contests, ordered "free" items that weren't free, etc. in his more clearheaded days.

The solution is tricky though because your aunt is/was limited in what she could do legally. Since occasionally scammers are family, you have to be careful about what powers you grant to other people.

Changing the number was a great idea though it turned out not to be effective. You could also try a change of address form and routing mail to a Post Office Box.

There may be readers who specialize in working with the elderly who can give additional insight into this topic.


Guest's picture

That is such an unfortunate story, I am also sorry to hear that that happened to such a wonderful lady. There should be something done within the law to prevent such things....maybe someday we will see these crooks paying for the things they have done.

Guest's picture

This is a somewhat familiar story to me, as an elderly family member did some of the same things. In her case, she purchased several whole closets full of junk items from a company called US Purchasing Exchange.

After she died, we discovered she had spent thousands of dollars on expensive items, mostly junk.

There are any number of companies out there willing to prey on the elderly.

Probably the best we can do is pay more attention to the older folks we care about.

Guest's picture

I think it's hard to know where to draw the line between letting an elderly relative live their own life, and making sure that they're capable of looking after themselves. Like most of us, I don't think the elderly would appreciate someone poking their nose in where it's not wanted. But equally, how do you stand back and let someone be taken advantage of like this?

Guest's picture

It just saddens me so much to read this story because these people prey on the elderly and those who are in desperate financial situations. While my experiences have paled in comparison, when I was looking to work from home I lost some money trying to find legitimate jobs. These people know who is going to want this money badly and they look to scam those people.

I am so sorry that your family has gone through this and thank you for sharing such a personal experience.

Guest's picture

Thanks for your story. What a pity that nothing could be done to save your grandma from those scammers and thieves or from herself. How can you convince someone that what she was doing was harmful when all she wanted to do was help those she loved.

Catherine Shaffer's picture

Thank you for the sympathy, everyone. This has me wondering how many millions of dollars have been literally stolen from senior citizens and sent overseas. It's something we should take seriously.

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor

Guest's picture

Sounds weird. Western Union will not do it w/o your ID and any bank will have your photo ID and a record where the money has gone. My friend recently lost a personal check and was able to recover the name, account number, and other details of the person trying to cash it.

Guest's picture

More laws, new laws, changing laws are not going to fix the problem. Murder is still against the law last time I checked and that still happens. Educating the public on scams and exposing the scams is the only thing that will fix this issue.

Guest's picture

I don't know, but perhaps a mental competency evaluation would have been useful. Obviously you don't want to take over her life, but there might have been some way to change her number and, say, get her mail sent to a P.O. box where a relative could filter it.

Education is a huge part of stopping these scams, of course, but my grandfather was a very smart man whose brain gradually died of senile dementia. Fortunately, he wasn't taken in, but he did a good job of training his kids and then of being willing to listen to their advice. I wouldn't be surprised if someone could have fooled him, had they gotten in the right position.

Catherine Shaffer's picture

Yes, Grandma was examined for mental competency and she passed, and went on to give away more of her money. The problem with Alzheimer's disease is that it's a difficult diagnosis in the earlier stages, and there tends to be a long period where it's not clear whether the individual is suffering cognitive deficits. During this time, Grandma seemed lucid to most people, and the doctors were not able to conclusively diagnose her as mentally incompetent. The law errs on the side of competency. I think she may qualify as legally incompetent now, but it's too late.

Regarding bad check scams, that is somewhat beyond the scope of this article, and I am not really an expert, but there are a number of ways to run the scam. Grandma's legal redress in the case of the missing check is unclear, because she made a mistake in writing a check out of funds that had not yet cleared. In that case, it would have helped if her bank had put a hold on the check until it had completely cleared so that she could not draw on it. However, another twist is that typically the identity of the person who ran the scam is fake and the person is impossible to find once the deed is done. Probably the same scammer went after her again and again, so it seems like more persistent detective work could have tracked him down.

It's interesting that in talking to my Aunt, who did absolutely everything in her power to stop this from happening, she has still received a lot of feedback from people who think they know how to solve the problem. But she really did try everything. Absolutely everything. I think it's just very hard for people to believe that there is not some way to control or rescue a situation like this.

Keep in mind that it is a felony to divert someone's mail and read it for them, even if that person is very old.

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor

Guest's picture

Two things- first, we are going thru this with my grandpa and he has had 3 mental tests by 3 different doctors/agencies. So to someone on the outside, it seems like this is a logical step... however, you can see it is not that easy. If an elderly person can cook, clean, dress themselves, talk to neighbors, give money to scammers... it's all the same and cannot be considered mentally incompetent.

Secondly, a loss of inhibitions is the first stage of Alzheimer's. While grandpa has not been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it may be coming around the corner. So to all those out there, please watch your eldery loved one for a loss of inhibitions or slight changes in personality. It can very easily become a NIGTHMARE for all involved.

If anyone knows of any organizations that can help, please, please, please! post them now. Many are dealing with this with no place to turn.....

Thanks for your help in advance!

Guest's picture

As a kid growing up, I remember learning that long ago people lived in "extended families" and that now "we" lived in "nuclear families". I can remember how strange it seemed to even think of having my grandparents living with me.

When I got married, I found that my wife's family had her grandfather living with them (actually, he went back and forth, living with each of his sons part of the time). It was a good arrangement that clearly benefited him, his sons, and the kids.

When my mom retired, we convinced her to come live with us. One of our criteria in selecting a house was to have a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen all on the ground floor in anticipation that eventually mobility might be an issue. It has worked out extremely well for all of us.

Our society has a real horror of extended families and "losing our independence" which I think is sadly misplaced. It won't work for everyone, but I think it could work for a lot more people than are willing to try because of our culture's particular phobia about independence.

Guest's picture

Hi, I was just caught by the title of your post and was sorry to see how familiar your whole story was to me. My grampa slowly developed Alzheimer's and gave away his entire life savings over the last ten or fifteen years without any of the family knowing about it until the last few years. He was very secretive and defensive about his finances. Also very sad when he was aware of the scams and felt hurt by my mom and aunts trying to take over when he wasn't too cognizant. Luckily (?), his Alzheimer's had progressed to the point where my mom and aunts were able to take over his finances legally (and his mail, to hell with the law..! : ) But even with some time to work on it, they only managed to get to the point where his everyday expenses were half covered and when he passed away this summer, we all still ended up splitting the funeral costs, but there was no more debt (my mom and aunts were VERY aggressive with anyone claiming he owed them). There definitely needs to be some laws in place to protect our elders, but I guess I don't know where to start either. I guess for me, I see it as at least if we are aware of this problem with our grandparents, we can make plans with our parents for when they are that old. One thing I'm still dealing with is anger at those people for increasing my grampa's sadness/confusion when the illness was already taking so much from him. Again, really glad I stumbled upon your post and I'm really sorry to hear about your grandma's situation.

Guest's picture

As someone who lives in Las Vegas I have seen people chase jackpots at casinos only to lose substantial sums of money. For several years I worked for a Fortune 500 company in Vegas and witnessed a great many employees request transfers because they couldn't seem to control their desire to gamble. And I also saw a couple of people embezzle funds to gamble with who ultimately lost their jobs, their reputations and even their freedom for a breif period of time.

The allure of getting rich fast, of hitting the big one, of easy money will always enitce people into making poor decisions. Greed burns eternal and human nature will never change on that front.

Guest's picture

my grandpa has this problem, only so far the only thing we dont have control of is the home shopping network. he is constantly buying things and making my mom (since he can't drive anymore) ship them back when they are not what he wanted and/or needed. he lives next door, so my mom has been disposing of all the publisher clearing house envelopes (coming or going) and such whenever she notices one. it just gets very hard because they grew up and lived in a time where most people tried to help and were for the most part honest. nowadays, no one in businesses try to help. its about the dollar and the scam and older people (for the most part) dont understand that.

Guest's picture

I feel your pain. I lost $3000 to a craig's list scammer. Wanna know what was even more frustrating? Dealing with the numerous law enforcement agencies that just had me jump through the paperwork hoops. FBI and Secret Service don't even give you the time of day if the amount is under $20,000. And local police can not do anything to track scammers out of the state or country, except take a report. The only recourse I was able to take was to sell my Western Union stock. They were also the only people to call me back and ask for more details, which just made me even more frustrated, since all they wanted to do was save a stockholder.

The worst part is that law enforcement knows how the scammers work but can't do anything to catch them since most are for small amounts (to them not the victims) and across state and country lines.

Guest's picture

I am sorry to hear about this. I'm in a very similar situation with my mother, only she doesn't seem to have Alzheimers to the best of my knowledge. She, as your grandmother was, is so convinced she will win one of these lotteries or Publisher Clearing house offers, and has been for many, many years. After all, the psychics she periodically pays for readings are always telling her she'll be rich soon (the fact that they've been telling her the same vague crap for twenty years or more hasn't deterred her yet). A few years back she got scammed by the "you've won 2 million US dollars in the Spanish lottery" scam, where you have to send them a couple hundred to cover the "administrative" costs. Once they hook you, they don't let go. They keep calling asking for account numbers to deposit the check to and additional adminstrative cost money to cover snags. It took me and my brother and a person at the bank to convince my mother they weren't legitamite. Even then she questioned it until we got her to file a police report and they told her it was a well known scam. When my mother informed the scammer on the phone that she'd gone to the police and he shouldn't call back or he'd be in trouble, he laughed before he hung up. Fortunately they got less than a $1000 out of her, but this is the only one we know about. When I collected her mail while visiting over the holidays, there must have been twenty envelopes, and all but two were BS "you've already won" type envelopes or requests from charities for money. Given the volume, I have to wonder which ones I've missed and how much she's spent. I can only hope I've learned, and taught my children, better, and don't find myself doing this as I hit my late seventies.

Guest's picture

I take every fake check I get like that directly over to my bank. I also include the envelope it came in. They then forward it to their fraud division and I can only hope and pray that my little bit of action will one day lead to catching a scammer.

Guest's picture

quote: #8


Thank you for the sympathy, everyone. This has me wondering how many millions of dollars have been literally stolen from senior citizens and sent overseas. It's something we should take seriously.

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor



As much as some people would like to think, scammers and thieves do not necessary come from overseas.


Please, think it twice before making those discriminatory remarks.


Thank you.

Guest's picture

The comment about all the money sent overseas comes from the fact that 90% of the scam offers received have foreign addresses to send payment to. If the payment is being sent to Great Britain, Switzerland, Australia, etc. then it is in fact being sent overseas and is in no way discriminatory.

I know this for a fact because my father is also giving all his money away to these jerks and I've seen the addresses on the envelopes.

Guest's picture

Your story hit me. Mine is nothing like yours, but this similarity: My 82 year old father told me from the time I was a small child that when he won the lottery (again when, not if) he would make me an heiress.

Money details - I don't know.

But he went online asking for people who grew up in his neighborhood. A group of people, who look like they're in a bar, sent him their picture and a letter, and emails, hoping to meet him. He keeps the picture taped to his mirror.

A reminder to keep better tabs on him.

Guest's picture


Guest's picture

I am so glad you have written this article because it is such an emotional release for me. Both of my parents are currently being scammed by someone who claims to be or have inherited a great deal of money. I have pleaded with them for years that the businesses they invest in are fictitious but it is to no avail. This has torn my family apart, and I am the only child so no one to talk to about it. I am absolutely powerless to convince my parents. I have pleaded and pleaded and they think I shouldn't worry but the guy is a freak and moved in with them and gotten involved in their spiritual life. It is the saddest thing to see and one of the biggest things I never thought would have to face. Alzheimers runs in both my parents lines and it is their generation. Fortunately in our state there is a relatively new law where you don't have to prove cognitive defect to get an adult protective order. I don't know what good that will do. I can't do anything or I might get blamed on ruining their golden opportunity.

Guest's picture

My 78 year old Dad has been scammed out of his life savings, his entire reverse mortgage amount and left with $70k of credit card debts. My Mom asked me to take care of his finances shortly before she passed away 2 years ago but he refused my offers for help and became secretive and evasive with his finances. He gave it away willingly to overseas scammers. Specifically Spanish lottery, Jamaica (phone calls), Canadian (check in mail) scams. They still call every day to scam him out of his monthly pension check. I overheard one of the scammers and he sounded like a nice elderly man who could be your grandfather. My Dad still believes he is going to receive millions and these people are honest (except the Canadian guy who stole the money from the credit cards). His Publishers Clearing House tickets sit next to his chair and he waits all day for them to show up when they have a drawing. I play the role of your Aunt trying to stop the insanity but it is damaging my relationship with my father. I always assumed my Dad would have plenty of money for assisted living and whatever else he needed. It is all gone. Legally there is nothing I can do without his permission. I would need a doctor to declare him mentally incompetent to take over his finances. He called me today and needed $150 to make a credit card payment. He said if he didn't give them the money they would take away his credit card and give it to someone else. I had to refuse my own Dad a $150 loan because I can't believe a word he says. What is the moral of this story? These evil overseas scammers go through the obituaries and target the elderly. They will continue to scam our elderly until governments, honest politicians, bank officials and law enforcement can work together to stop this insanity.

Guest's picture

My grandma is going through this exact same situation. I am starting an awareness campaign to bring attention to this issue. My grandma will not listen to anyone except these people who are taking her money. If you are interested in joining my campaign, please reply to this comment and I will give you my email address.

Guest's picture

sweepstakes are controlling my grandmother life and getting all her money. they come from australia and netherlands mostly. Took her to talk to bank manager to hear from someone other than family these were scams. No progress but I did learn it is partly a control issue if you tell her not to she will definately send in 2 more. Convince her she is a smart person that has always had the answers when you needed them. Make her feel needed in ways other than money and keep her busy.Too much time on their hands . Everything has to be their idea you just have to convince them it was.

Guest's picture

I am so sorry to hear this is happening to so many elderly. My 80 year old father is a victim to these scams. Over the last two years He has trusted these scammers and has given away his life savings, sold his possessions, borrowed money to give away and has nothing to show for it. It was an overseas investment that promised him a great return on his money but he has to send them monthly investment fees; or it was taxes for a prize he won; or it was fees to have his prize delivered to him. His wife desperately needs medical care but there is no money for her care. His friends and family have pleaded with him to stop. Social Services, the Office on Aging, the banks he has invested in, the Sheriff's Dept have all been involved trying to stop this. He has had medical testing done and has been found to be fine. His phone number has been changed numerous time. My father was a very smart business man and no one can understand how this happened to him. The law can't catch these scammers, but there is a higher power that will.