Hinckley considers herself lucky, though. Thanks to the kindness of friends, neighbors and strangers who rallied and held a spaghetti dinner earlier this month to replace her lost savings, her account was boosted by $18,000. A grateful Hinckley has a message for others who fall victim to scam artists: “Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed — tell somebody,” she said. “By talking about it, you might help prevent it from happening to somebody else.”
Hinckley still drives, and, until recently, she made regular trips to the gym. She has lived on her own for the past four decades.
“I never dreamed that something like this would happen to me,” she said.
For the past 15 years, she had entered the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, she said, hoping someday she might hit the jackpot and get a phone call telling her she was the grand-prize winner.
On July 9, Hinckley was elated to pick up her phone and hear a man identify himself as “Dave Sayer” with the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol. He told Hinckley that she had won second place in the sweepstakes, entitling her to $2.5 million and a luxury Mercedes sedan.
“I was thrilled; it all seemed very real,” Hinckley said. “He sounded educated, and he had a nice voice. He said there were some procedures that needed to be followed to get me my money and that he’d be back in touch. He also told me not to tell anybody that I was the winner until I’d been awarded my money."
“Sayer” — the con man used the name of the real prize announcer — began calling Hinckley regularly, she said, and, after the fourth call, he told her there were some fees associated with her prize winnings.
“Because they were based in New York, he said that authorization needed to happen in Maine before I received my money, and there were fees with that,” Hinckley recalled. “He told me to simply keep track of my receipts and I’d eventually be reimbursed for the fees. He made it all sound very logical."
Soon, the man was calling six or seven times a day to check on her health, ask what she had for dinner and make sure she had taken her medication, Hinckley said.
“He was very clever. He acted like he genuinely cared,” she said. “He’d assure me that I’d be getting my check soon. But there was usually another fee of some kind.”
A few hundred here, a couple thousand there, and it wasn’t long before her life savings was depleted.
Finally, in September, when her grandson realized something was up, Hinckley contacted authorities, but it was too late.
“I just wasn’t up on what to look for and that made me vulnerable to a scammer,” she said. “I didn’t see the red flags, and I was very disappointed in myself."
Hoping to help other seniors, Hinckley decided to go public with her story and gave an interview to a reporter for the Lewiston Sun Journal. People were outraged by what happened to her, she said, including John Baldacci, Maine’s governor from 2003 to 2011, and now an adviser for the Pierce Atwood law firm in Portland.
“Some people at the law office brought it to my attention and said, ‘We need to do something to help this woman,’ and I agreed,” Baldacci said. “My family ran an Italian restaurant for a long time in Bangor, and I’d been doing spaghetti fundraisers off and on for years. So I called Barbara and asked if I could hold one for her to help get her money back.”
On Jan. 8, more than 400 people paid $5 each to attend the fundraiser at Auburn Middle School, loading their plates with spaghetti made from Baldacci’s family recipe, as well as salad, rolls and chocolate cupcakes. Most people gave more than $5, Baldacci said, with some writing checks for more than $1,000.
“Barbara is such a sweetheart; she’s like everybody’s grandmother,” he said. “Seeing how everyone came together to help was so heartwarming. In Maine, we take the shirts off our backs to help those in need."
At the dinner, presentations were given by law enforcement, bankers and AARP representatives on how to spot potential scams and avoid getting conned.
“It’s the most disgusting thing. People who prey on seniors are the lowest form of life,” Baldacci said. “We wanted to make it a teachable moment and let people know that this is a common problem. Nobody has to feel alone.”
Hinckley said she discovered at the dinner that she has more friends than she realized.
“People have been absolutely wonderful to me,” she said. “I even received a check from somebody in Alaska. Can you imagine? Alaska!"
Addressing the crowd that had turned out for spaghetti in the school cafeteria, she spoke from the heart with the first thing that came to mind: “Thank you, thank you, thank you."
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