Henriette Schmuhl never thought she’d be the face of the scammed.
After all, the North Aurora woman has a degree in finance and spent most of a long and successful career in corporate credit management.
Yet here she is, at age 74, a year into retirement and weeks after some man calling himself Andrew Hall pretending to be from Homeland Security took more than a quarter-million dollars from her retirement savings, publicly sharing her tale.
It’s a sad story. A disturbing one. And it’s certainly one of caution all of us should pay attention to, even if we think we would never be this gullible.
“If it can happen to me,” says Schmuhl, “it can happen to anyone.”
The story starts on May 18. That’s when “Homeland Security” popped up on Schmuhl’s home phone and she found herself speaking to an “agent” who informed her there was a warrant out for her arrest.
Money laundering. Drug trafficking. Traced to a car in her name in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Which had just enough ring of truth – Schmuhl rented a car in that city years ago while conducting some training classes – to convince her to listen to what he had to say.
The man showed her the arrest warrant, the case number and his badge number through a computer app. He showed her a picture of the car where 21 pounds of cocaine had been confiscated, as well as several bank accounts and IRAs in her name with large deposits of money.
Schmuhl says she “freaked out.” But “Mr. Hall” assured her she seemed like a nice and honest lady, and that this was obviously a case of stolen identity. And the only way to protect her assets was to get another Social Security number and transfer all her money to other accounts.
He was the only one who could help her, the scammer said, warning her that if she went to the police, she could be arrested on the spot. As could her family. So it was better that she kept them out of the loop until the whole thing was straightened out.
That was the only order Schmuhl did not completely follow. She told husband Stan, who warned her to be careful. So did her financial planner who reminded her of the many scams out there.
Schmuhl went ahead anyway because by this time, the man had shown her enough “documentation” to convince her he was legit. He also referred here to the Homeland Security website, where his name was listed, as were other members of the federal team “working hard to protect” here.
Reading her story, I’m sure you too saw red flags the size of Texas popping up all over the place. But Schmuhl was scared. The man was smooth. And she trusted him, so much so that even when she got angry and accused him of taking her “$200,000,” she apologized after he admonished her for doubting his intentions.
“Yes, I had a friendship with him,” Schmuhl says. “He was so nice. He always wished me well and to take care of myself … he always reminded me he was there to protect me.”
Certainly he kept in contact with her, often staying on the phone with Schmuhl when, for nearly two months she would “disappear for hours at a time,” shuttling nervously from bank to bank, from Bitcoin machine to Bitcoin machine, withdrawing large amounts of cash – the first was $9,000 from her savings but it went as high as $150,000 from a retirement account – and converting these large chunks into digital currency.
All the while praying her “son-in-law or someone from her church or my husband’s work would not drive by” and see her inside a marijuana shop or liquor store or gas station making these clandestine transactions.
All the while, making up excuses to bank tellers who, aware of the amount of fraud out there, questioned her large withdrawals.
“He would tell me to say I needed it for a contractor who only wanted cash to take advantage of his home improvement discount,” Schmuhl remembers.
It only got worse.
After she could no longer convert cash to Bitcoin, the scam artist on the other end of the line directed her to buy gift cards with her credit cards as a way of establishing new credit under a new Social Security number. And when retail cashiers would question these high dollar gift cards, she would tell them she was purchasing them for a wedding party.
“I grew up being taught not to lie, steal or cheat,” says Schmuhl. “And here I was, doing just that.”
It’s no wonder the petite, soft-spoken woman’s anxiety level was through the roof. It’s no wonder her family thought she was keeping a serious illness from them.
“She’d get a phone call and then leave. I thought it was doctors or nurses setting up chemo appointments,” recalls daughter Janelle Hutchison. “I thought she had cancer.”
As she lost more sleep and had more meltdowns over the next couple of months, the nightmare continued.
Then, at 4:30 pm on July 9, it kicked into high gear.
That’s when she called the man to check on the new Social Security card that was supposed to be coming and found the line dead except for an automated voice telling her “this number is no longer in business.”
Schmuhl froze. She dialed again. And again.
“Oh my God, I’ve been scammed,” the visibly shaking victim told her daughter, whose family was living with her while awaiting a move-in date for their new home.
Schmuhl immediately called her husband who was on his way home from work and after grabbing her computer, phone and other documentation, met him at the police station.
The FBI has taken over the case, according to North Aurora Deputy Police Chief Scott Buziecki, who also told me the scam was traced to Malta – “and not Illinois” – with zero likelihood Schmuhl will see any of her money again.
At this point she’s getting “some relief” from credit card holders. But with $185,000 taken from one account, $38,000 from another, $16,000 from a third and another $17,000 in gift cards, the amount Schmuhl lost is staggering: Over $250,000.
“When I think about it, how could I be so foolish?”
It’s a rhetorical question Schmuhl asks repeatedly as we sit around the kitchen table of her well-kept townhouse, piles of paperwork at her fingertips that lay out in shocking dollar figures the trail of this cruel deception.
There is genuine anguish in her voice, not just because she will likely need to get a part-time job or that her husband will need to put off retirement longer or that they may never take that coveted Alaskan cruise or be as generous to her family , who started a GoFundMe page for her.
It’s what this man did to her self-esteem. Here confidence. Her sense of worth.
Schmuhl still struggles with guilt, anxiety, crying spells, probably even some PTSD.
She listens to Christian music “to rest my mind,” yet still feels vulnerable, worthless and for the first time, “I really feel old.”
And yet, here she is, willing to put all those feelings on public display, refusing to do what so many older people do when they realize they have been scammed.
“I would love to have them get caught,” Schmuhl says, her voice picking up resolve. “But even better would be for them not to get any more money.
“I want people to know.”
So do local police.
While North Aurora’s department gets plenty of reports of attempted scams, “when it comes to this sort of big loss, we get something maybe a few times a year,” says Buziecki. “We try our best to make people understand that no government agency or utility will try to collect money through Bitcoin or gift cards.”
Or, he added, if there’s an arrest warrant out for you, even if it’s “because of a grandson in California,” you won’t find out via a phone call.
If there’s any red flag, any question at all that indicates things might not be on the up and up, Buziecki insists, contact your local police department.
“It’s a difficult nut to crack,” he says of these swindlers who robocall millions, and when they get someone to answer, reel them in.
“We put out information about these scams all the time. It’s not always easy to reach the senior community – many are not on social media,” he says. “But we keep trying.”
Which is a good thing. As Schmuhl emphatically and repeatedly states, “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I experienced.”