Barbara Hinckley sits in her Auburn home with paperwork from a monthslong scam that promised her millions of dollars and a new car, but instead drained her life’s savings. Andree Kehn/Staff Photographer

AUBURN — When the phone rang in her trailer at the Ja-Lynne Mobile Home Park off Turner Street on July 6, 95-year-old Barbara Hinckley quickly answered it.

A friendly voice on the other end told her that he was David Sawyer, prize director for Publishers Clearing House in New York, and he had some good news: She’d won second prize in its annual contest.

That meant, he told her, that she could expect $2.5 million and a new Mercedes-Benz.

Hinckley said she didn’t need a new car and wasn’t even too sure about the cash.

“What would I do with all that money?” she asked. “What would anybody do with all that money?”

Three days after hearing she had won $2.5 million in a Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes, Barbara Hinckley received a package that included a purported copy of the check she would receive for $2.5 million. Provided image

But she didn’t see any reason to be suspicious. After all, she said, she’d done business with the company off and on for three decades. She also knew from its television commercials over the years that it really does give away large sums.

Sawyer, who struck Hinckley as a well-spoken, well-educated fellow, told her she had two choices about how to handle her good fortune.

“You can do it publicly,” he said, with all the attendant publicity, “or you can do it privately. But if you do it privately, it is just between you and me. You can’t say anything about it to anyone.”

During the next six weeks, keeping it all mum from family and friends, Hinckley forked over more than $16,000 in a series of transfers that wiped out her life savings.

Right to the end, the man identifying himself as Sawyer, never dropped the pretense that Hinckley was a lucky winner.

In fact, though, she was just the latest — and, no doubt, not the last — to be conned by crooks who prey on vulnerable, often lonely seniors who are too trusting and naive. Publisher’s Clearing House, which has long warned about the fraud, had nothing to do with the crime.

The Federal Trade Commission says that if somebody claims you won something and then asks for a fee, it’s fake. “If you have to pay, it’s a scam,” the agency says.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who chairs the Senate Aging Committee, has long targeted scams aimed at the elderly.

“I have heard numerous heartbreaking stories of Mainers being robbed of their hard-earned money, from amounts ranging from hundreds of dollars to their entire life savings,” Collins said Friday. “One of my top priorities as chairman of the Senate Aging Committee is to stop the ruthless scam artists who steal billions of dollars from seniors each year.”

“Last year, the bipartisan Senior $afe Act I authored was signed into law, which helps protect seniors by encouraging the trained employees of financial institutions to question suspicious transactions and report suspected senior financial exploitation,” Collins said. “I have also introduced legislation to prevent guardianship abuse and crack down on robocalls, but more work remains to be done. Protecting our nation’s seniors requires a coordinated response among all levels of government.”

This fall, her office said, staffers assisted an older Lewiston woman robbed of her life savings through a lottery scam that came to light after a teller noticed she was withdrawing large sums. The FBI is investigating it.

For Hinckley and other seniors, it’s an all-too-common tale, usually remaining under wraps because victims are too broken or ashamed to admit they fell for cons ranging from “your grandson is in prison and needs your help” to phone warnings that only immediate payments will stop the Internal Revenue Service from seizing your home, both schemes that often entrap unwary seniors.

Hinckley said she wanted to tell the story of this “sleazy business” that happened to her because the only good that can come of her odyssey is to let others know how it occurred so that they don’t fall victim as well.

“I hope it never happens to other people,” she said. “It was horrible to live through.”

That first call from Sawyer came on a Saturday.

By Tuesday, the supposed company executive was fast on his way to becoming a near-constant phone buddy, calling Hinckley “sweetheart” and “baby girl,” asking about her health, her meals, her family and all sorts of things.

“The conversation just kept going on and on and on,” Hinckley said. “We talked about everything, just about.”

Sawyer even mentioned President Donald Trump to her, calling him “that freak down in Washington” whose new rules and regulations were supposedly making it hard for his firm these days.

At first, Hinckley said, she wondered if it was some sort of flimflam operation. She asked the caller flat-out whether she could trust him.

This is a picture of the Mercedes-Benz supposedly won by Barbara Hinckley of Auburn. It turned out to be a scam. Provided image

He told her she was “perfectly safe, that it was all on the up-and-up,” Hinckley said.

Within a week, Sawyer said he was heading to Auburn, calling her before boarding a plane to Portland and then from the airport in Maine and then from a hotel there. He even gave her the name of the hotel and its phone number.

That was also when he first asked her to send money.

Sawyer provided some convoluted tale about why she had to send the cash — placed inside the pages of three magazines in an overnight package — so Publisher’s Clearing House could confirm her identity and ensure that she could get her prizes.

“Gee, that doesn’t sound right,” Hinckley said in response. “I said to him, ‘Asking me to send this is like scammers have done.’”

But Sawyer assured her she would get reimbursed soon. The fees she paid upfront, he said, were just a technicality.

They soon added up.

On July 10, she sent $3,490. Three days later, it was $500. On July 15, another $1,000. Three more days went by and then she sent $500 more.

On July 20, she mailed him $9,000. Then, after two more days passed, $2,000.

A teller at Mechanic Savings Bank asked her if she knew what she was doing — and even got a supervisor to come talk to her.

“That’s a lot of money,” Hinckley recalled the teller saying. “Are you sure?”

But Hinckley explained to the skeptical bankers that she would be getting it all back soon, nothing to worry about.

Somebody at the bank apparently didn’t buy it, since Hinckley’s children got a call warning them that something was amiss. She said she “sort of put off” subsequent questions from her family about the money.

“I was being loyal to the wrong people,” Hinckley said.

By early August, a month into the scam, Hinckley’s account was pretty much drained.

“Don’t worry about anything,” Sawyer told her. “You’re going to get this all back.”

Hinckley said that even though she enjoyed talking with Sawyer, the experience became an ever greater worry, so upsetting that she lost eight pounds fretting about it.

Hinckley, who retired at age 65, had built up her savings by working multiple jobs for 46 years and spending as little as she could. Typically, she said, she even added $200 a month from her pension and Social Security checks to the stash.

She said she has always lived on the money she gets from Social Security and a pension from her old job with the Auburn Housing Authority, never touching the cash she’d socked away for the future.

“I just knew I was never going to spend it,” Hinckley said, but having something set aside was a comfort — security for what could happen.

The scam began to unravel in August, when Sawyer claimed he had arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn, preparing to get the car and cash to Hinckley at last.

He called her to say he was on the way over to her home — a trailer with a baby grand piano where the music-loving Hinckley had lived for 40 years. In the next call, though, just minutes later, he told her his GPS was acting up and instead of nearing her place, he was actually over by the post office on Rodman Road.

Before long, he was supposedly having his first lobster dinner in Maine at Mac’s Seafood in Auburn.

The man had all the details down, but nothing he couldn’t have found easily on the internet. He talked as if he often came to Maine to see her, but somehow could never quite get to her.

“This kept happening, over and over and over,” Hinckley said, with Sawyer always friendly and solicitous, asking her about whether she’d taken her medication, worn her seat belt and kept herself safe.

Sawyer promised repeatedly to come to her. But “always something happened” that made it impossible or impractical, especially for a busy executive with a wide portfolio, Hinckley said

Sawyer had Hinckley change her phone number a couple of times, once knowing her new one even before she did. He kept switching his number, too.

“You don’t want scammers getting to you,” Sawyer told Hinckley.

Calls by the Sun Journal to the last number Sawyer used to phone Hinckley went straight to voicemail. Nobody responded to them.

Hinckley still speaks of Sawyer with more than a hint of fondness, despite everything.

“He was very considerate,” she said, and obviously bright. He spoke without an accent, only saying a few words oddly, but nothing that triggered any concern.

Collins’ office and the AARP say scams like this one are often run out of Jamaica.

Hinckley sent money to addresses in Connecticut, North Carolina, Rhode Island and elsewhere, always changing.

This apartment house in New Britain, Connecticut was listed as the return address on the first mailing sent from a scam artist to his victim in Auburn last summer. Google Streetviews

Early on, she got a packet of information from a fellow in New Britain, Connecticut — her address handwritten on a mailing label for a Priority Mail package from the post office — that included copies of prize letters, Internal Revenue Service documents, picture of other prize winners and such, clearly meant to bolster Sawyer’s tale but short on any solid information.

The language sometimes displayed fake formality and twisted legalese, but to someone unfamiliar with such things, it seemed to have a ring of authenticity.

But Hinckley grew suspicious as her savings dwindled.

On Aug. 6, she mailed a check for $4,300 to a man in Greenville, North Carolina — and then thought better of it. She made sure it bounced.

Out of money, worried and increasingly convinced she’d been tricked, Hinckley said she finally fessed up to a family member.

“I’m in something over my head,” she said. “I need help.”

Within a day, the bank, the police and others were told. But nobody had an answer for how to find Sawyer, how to get her money back or how to roll back the clock to July 5.

“My family was ready to lock me up” in an assisted-living facility, Hinckley said, but she refused to go.

“If you’re going to take away all of my independence,” she said she told them, then “you might as well shoot me.”

Instead, they all agreed to let someone else control her finances. By then, though, her savings had vanished.

“I gave it all away,” she said sadly. “I felt so stupid.”

The problem, Hinckley said, is that “I never think anybody would do anything to hurt me.”

The next time Sawyer phoned, she told him she’d talked to the police and knew she’d been the victim of a scam. She told him, as the police urged her to say, not to call ever again.

But he didn’t listen.

Hinckley said he kept calling, repeatedly, for days and weeks. She ignored him.

By mid-September, she’d had it.

She said she knew it was hopeless, that she’d been the victim of a thief.

And yet, when Sawyer called one day to tell her he was in town and had the $2.5 million, Hinckley didn’t just tell him to get lost.

She said she wanted to find out if there was any chance that maybe it wasn’t all just a fraud. She said she wanted to be sure, to be absolutely positive.

Sawyer insisted he just wanted “to prove my honesty to you once and for all.”

So Hinckley listened as Sawyer said he could refund all her money to her that very day.

All he needed, he said, was $285 to pay a police officer to escort him to her home.

So she sent him the $285.

Nobody showed up.

She had $8.75 left in her account.

“Now I know,” Hinckley said. “I want nothing to do with him again.”

 


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