The 75-year-old San Clemente woman thought she was helping to catch a thief when she withdrew $5,400 from her bank account in January.
But moments after she nervously drove to the parking lot of a local library and handed over an envelope filled with crisp $100 bills to a "bank detective," she realized she had been swindled.
"I started screaming and yelling after I sat there for five minutes waiting for this man to mark the bills and come back," said the woman, who reported the incident to police but said she still can't bring herself to tell any of her friends or relatives about it.
The woman, who asked that her identity not be revealed, unwittingly fell prey to what is known as "the bank examiner scheme," said Sheriff's Sgt. Stan Kinkade, who has been tracking the crime for the past four years.
"Of all the financial schemes that are played against the elderly, the bank examiner scheme seems to be the one that is the most widely spread locally," Kinkade said. "The crook is playing on an elderly person's desire to do what is right."
Senior citizens are often prime targets for this scheme and other types of financial fraud, including investment schemes, phony religious or charitable donations, fake travel bargains, bogus miracle cures and home inspection rip-offs, police and bank officials said.
The elderly make good targets because they are more likely to be isolated from family and friends, have poorer eyesight that can sometimes make it difficult for them to describe the suspects and often have considerable savings.
Although statistics are difficult to keep because the crime goes unreported much of the time, Kinkade said that at least 65 people have reported falling victim to the bank examiner scam in Orange County within the past three years. No one has been arrested in connection with any of the crimes, Kinkade said.
The amount of money lost is typically between $2,000 and $5,000.
The scheme usually works like this: A con artist, posing as a law enforcement official, a bank security officer or a bank examiner, asks the victim to help catch an untrustworthy bank employee by withdrawing substantial funds. The victim is instructed not to tell anyone at the bank why the money is being withdrawn.
When the money is handed over to the bogus official to be marked as bait for the supposed embezzler, the con artist issues a receipt, says the money will be redeposited, then disappears.
"The victims are usually very ashamed and don't want to say anything," said Lt. Henry Batterton, a member of the security force at Leisure World in Laguna Hills. "They think to themselves, 'How could I possibly have been so dumb?' "
In the past two months, at least two Leisure World residents have fallen for the scam, including a retired military man who lost $2,000, Batterton said.
"These scam artists are real sharp in their delivery and they get these poor folks involved," Batterton said. "Some of the people are so lonely and want to talk to someone. They'll talk to anyone about anything. Or you have the ones who want to be a do-gooder and assist in arresting the bad guys."
One of the most recent cases involved two female victims, both in their 80s, from Brea.
A con artist first called an 83-year-old woman and asked her to assist in an internal bank investigation. Two days later, an 86-year-old woman was contacted and the same request was made, said Detective Manuel Ramos of the Brea Police Department.
Both women agreed to withdraw money from their accounts and take it to a nearby fast food restaurant, where they were told that a bank representative would be waiting for them, Ramos said.
Fortunately for these women, the scam fell apart.
The 86-year-old woman wasn't able to withdraw the money and arrived at the restaurant without it. She was told to try again on another day. Instead, she returned home and called police.
Police were also called after the 83-year-old woman, who couldn't find the restaurant, went back to her bank to redeposit the cash and told the bank teller what happened.
Like most of the other victims, these two women were recent widows whose names were probably found by the con artists in newspaper obituaries, Ramos said.
"So many of the victims have recently lost loved ones so they are traumatized twice," said Kinkade. "That's why this crime is so cruel."
The San Clemente victim was also a recent widow. Her husband of 40 years had died only two months before she was victimized. She said losing a "big chunk of my life savings" pushed her to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
"I was trying to get over the loss of my husband when all this happened," she said. "I've had many sleepless nights. I'm $5,400 in the hole. I feel so little and low and so taken and so hurt. I just don't think I will ever get over it."
Leisure World officials said they try to do their best to warn residents of various scams that target the elderly by distributing flyers, holding seminars and running segments on their closed-circuit television station.
"We try to keep residents updated on what to look for," Batterton said.
Some banks, such as Bank of America, have mailed warnings of such scams along with customers' monthly statements and have instructed tellers to contact police or security if they suspect fraud, said spokeswoman Kirsten Salo.
"We understand that this kind of thing goes on and we want to do everything that we can to help customers avoid the situation," Salo said.
Salo said it is important for people to know that no federal, state or local law enforcement agency, or any bank official, would ever request that a customer withdraw money to participate in an internal bank investigation.
"Tellers are trained to tactfully ask the reason for such a large cash withdrawal," Salo said. Customers "are to be warned of the danger of carrying large amounts of cash and are advised to accept a cashier's check."
Kinkade, who investigates economic crimes for the Sheriff's Department, said the only way to prevent the crime from happening is to educate senior citizens and their families.
"People have to remember that when someone calls them on the phone, they are in control," he said. "They can stop it any time they want. I've never heard of a case where there was any kind of reprisal against anyone for hanging up the phone."
Anyone who is asked to participate in an internal bank investigation should try to get the caller's name and contact their bank branch manager or local police immediately, officials said.
So far, it has been extremely difficult for law enforcement officers to develop leads on local bank scam suspects because victims are often unable to give accurate physical descriptions of the people who took their money. Poor eyesight or a faulty memory is often the problem, Kinkade said.