Scammer takes last dollars of elderly Palo Alto woman, daughter

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- A Palo Alto woman and her elderly mother - struggling with mounting medical bills and ill health, were down to their last dollars

They decided to try starting a business - and instead, ran head on into an elaborate scam -- losing all they had left to a ruthless con artist who wiped out their savings.

"I was just standing there numb... like I was in a scene from a nightmare,'' 85 year old Martha Frye said. "We've been taken and I can barely follow why or how."

"They took everything.'' said her daughter, Wendy Frye. "All my mother's savings, gone all because I trusted someone I shouldn't have. What's so disturbing is there is nothing we can do about it, nothing the police can do."

It was a crisis that came just as Wendy received a shocking cancer diagnosis, her mother needing a critical eye surgery.

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The mother and daughter, living together in the family's Palo Alto home of 50 years, say the house is all they have left. Now they're afraid they may lose that too.

"You hear about people who lived good lives and had good jobs and somehow end up living on the streets,'' Martha said. "Then I realized I could be one of those people. I could be among those living on the streets."

Martha had just sold the last of her inherited stock to pay bills and groceries, and tucked the last $5,000 into a checking account. Martha began thinking of how to find work at age 85.

"I thought perhaps tutoring,'' Martha Frye said, squinting from the light after her retinal surgery. "I once was a teacher, you know, maybe I could be of some help to someone."

Wendy, who'd been looking for work unsuccessfully the past 18 months, decided to try selling her cooking skills instead, and put an ad on Craigslist offering herself as a "personal chef.''

At first no one responded. Then, a nibble -- an email from someone calling himself Michael Attkins.

"He said he was a British national, living in Toronto with his wife and three teen-aged daughters,'' Wendy said. "They were coming to the Bay Area for a vacation for six weeks and they wanted a cook for the time they were here. "

"We were both just thrilled,'' Martha recalls. "This was very good news because we were desperate."

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The man sent numerous emails, laying out detailed plans for the visit, even providing a list of favorite foods he said the family wanted Wendy to prepare. It included eggs, American style and British style, lamb, chicken, beef...

"I was very excited,'' Wendy recalls. "This sounded like the perfect introduction, a great first client."

Soon the man said he would send her a deposit to retain her services - and she received a check for $4,500.

"I told him it wasn't necessary and it was a large sum of money,'' Wendy recalls. "But he sent it anyway and we needed the money so the money was deposited into our account."

She put that $4,500 check into her own bank.

Soon after, the man asked her to use part of that $4,500 check to pay a chauffeur he had hired for his time in the Bay Area.

"He was saying he couldn't use Canadian bank accounts to make a deposit in a U.S. account and it would be more convenient if I paid him,'' Wendy recalls. "Just forward the money to the chauffeur into this account. So, I did.'

She deposited $2,000 into an account at Wells Fargo Bank in Houston, just as the man had directed.

A big mistake.

After the man became more and more demanding, Wendy looked him up online. She found no such person anywhere on the internet.

"So then I became a little worried,'' Wendy recalls.

She told the man she didn't want to work for him after all.

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"He blew his stack, as expected,'' she recalls. "He kept saying I had ruined everything, that now he had to go find another cook."

He demanded she return the rest of that $4,500. Which she did.

Another big mistake.

What she didn't realize is that $4,500 check was fake -- phony. It bounced back to her credit union account with no funds. the credit union blamed her for supposedly passing a bad check, and froze her account. What was worse, the bank used the last of their funds to cover the deposits Wendy made to the scammer's account. Their money, gone forever.

"It feels terrible, just terrible,'' Martha Frye said. "We've never had experiences like this, and when we went to the credit union, just seeing Wendy in tears, crying, it broke my heart."

"It's a terrible thing to do to a woman of 85,'' Wendy said of her mom. "I just feel devastated that she lost the last of her money because of me."

But even as they struggle in their latter years, facing major medical problems, an empty bank account, and the pain of a ruthless swindle, mother and daughter are not giving up.

They are renting out the rooms in their well kept home on Airbnb. A Stanford student from Poland is their latest guest - and he paid good money.

"There is a silver lining to all of this,'' Wendy says. "Thank God we have this house. I will replace that money someday."

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