An attempted phone scam in Murray, Kentucky has been put on the state Attorney General’s scam alert list after callers posing as Veterans Affairs tried to convince a newly bereaved widow that her late husband owed them money. Donna Herndon lost her husband less than a month ago and has put her grieving on pause to get the word out about a scam that she said could potentially ruin someone’s life.
Donna is 74 years old, she was married to her late husband Woody for 54 years. Donna wears a dog tag around her neck that reads “I heart my veteran” with Woody’s wedding band looped through the chain. She said he flew helicopters in Vietnam and airlifted the wounded.
“There would be no way to know how many people survived because of Woody and pilots like him.” Donna said.
Before Woody’s death on June 28th, he had been living nearly 20 years with only one lung. He was suffering the long term effects from a combination of exposure to ‘agent orange’ during the war and radiation, from a leak at a United States Enrichment Corporation plant he worked at. Donna said he was always a fighter- but now it’s her turn to fight- after nearly becoming one of the thousands of people affected by a financially draining phone scam.
"My mission is to get the word out." She said.
Donna was sitting in her home when she got the call. The I.D. said “U.S. Government.” So she answered it. The friendly-sounding woman on the other end told Donna she might have missed a V.A. check in the mail.
“She said ‘we don’t want any veterans widow to be without money to live on’,” Donna said.
This caught Donna’s attention because her bank had just told her that her husband’s check was sent back due to his death.
“She caught me in a very vulnerable position...still grieving and knowing that his check’s not there.” Donna said.
The scammer then spoke to Donna for over 30 minutes… bringing up personal information that she later realized was in her husband’s online obituary.
“People have been so kind and so nice and so helpful since Woody died. She just came across as another one of those very nice, very kind, helpful people.” She said.
The woman told Donna that Woody had not been paying his insurance premiums for two and a half years - and said if she wanted to be on his policy, she would pay the debt in full through a reloadable gift card. Donna said this was a big red flag. She told the woman she would have to double check what she was telling her before she paid anything. The friendly voice on the other end took a darker tone.
“She said ‘Mrs. Herndon, I have spent half an hour-’ which is true, maybe more- ‘trying to help you.’ She said ‘I can’t believe you are questioning my integrity, my intentions...” Donna said.
Donna hung up the phone. But then she got an even stranger call... from the local funeral home where Woody’s service was held. The man on the other end became very accusatory.
“He said ‘did you just hang up on one of our government employees who was trying to help you? You were very rude to her and really hurt her feelings.” Donna said.
She told him she knows everyone who works at that funeral home and that he was not one of them.
“I said, I am horrified that there are people- low lives like you- trying to take advantage of newly bereaved widows of our veterans.”
Donna shared her experience on Facebook and her post has more than 2,000 shares. She alerted the local funeral home - J.H. Churchill - to let director Jeremy Grogan know about the incident.
“I said ‘you mean they called and it said J.H. Churchill Funeral Home on the caller I.D.?’ she said yes. I was just so...shocked.” Grogan said.
Grogan said his staff works hard to maintain good relationships. He said his business’s reputation could have been damaged under different circumstances.
“If it was a bigger city, like Chicago, there’s no way someone can know every employee at a funeral home in Chicago. That could be very dangerous not only to the victim, but to the funeral home’s reputation.” Grogan said.
Calloway County Sheriff Sam Steger said phone number “hijacking” or “spoofing” can be done through an app, making any phone number susceptible to scammers.
“Unless you have a device that can find the app that the person used to spoof the number, it’s difficult to find the originating number.” Steger said.
Donna admitted she was angry at herself for staying on the call as long as she did. But Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear said her feelings are common. He said it’s the reason most seniors don’t report phone scams.
“Sadly in so many of these instances-especially seniors- people get embarrassed. Because these people are master manipulators and they get you into a heightened emotional state.” Beshear said.
He said the scammer’s anger towards Donna is just another tactic to guilt trip victims into sending money.
“These scammers getting upset are just them pulling off the mask and showing you the horrible people and criminals that they are,” Beshear said. “They are trying to prey on our seniors.”
Beshear said every year in the United States, scammers steal more than three billion dollars from seniors. His office set up a program called “Scam Alerts” that sends information to 11,000 Kentuckians and 160 community partners around the state.
“The scams range from the IRS scam, to veteran scams, to the obituary scams, this being a combination of those last two.” Beshear said.
Donna Herndon said she is still grieving over the death of her husband. She said she has trouble imagining life without Woody. And she’s still shaken by the scam attempt and shudders to think of her older relatives - who might have fallen for it.
“The only way I can make any good of this, is try to alert other people who are vulnerable.” She said.
Beshear said if anyone is affected by a scam to first call the state Attorney General’s office. He said it is possible to get your money back. In 2016, Beshear's Office of Senior Protection received more than 2,600 complaints and returned more than $583,000 dollars in restitution.