Inspiration from a White Elephant and a Real Crime—Guest Maya Corrigan

I want to thank Sherry for inviting me as a guest blogger. We got to know each other through a manuscript exchange when we were both writing the first books of our mystery series. When our second books came out on the same day, we celebrated with a joint launch party. Now we’re both looking forward to the release of our third books and writing the fourth one in our series.

My Five-Ingredient Mysteries (By Cook or by Crook and Scam Chowder) feature 32-year-old Val, who left a stressful job Manhattan and now lives with her widowed grandfather in a historic town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Val runs a café, tests recipes for her long-planned cookbook, and solves murders, which she, like other sleuths in cozy mysteries, encounters with amazing frequency. In By Cook or by Crook, as she investigates the murder of one of her café patrons, Granddad takes up cooking and pares down her recipes to five ingredients. Each book in the series has five suspects, five clues, and Granddad’s modified five-ingredient recipes.

dolls dark cropped smlAround the time I was developing Granddad as a character, I came home from a white-elephant exchange with a pair of folk art dolls. If Sherry saw those dolls at a yard sale, I’m betting she couldn’t resist them. From the moment I sat that couple in my living room, I felt as if Val’s grandfather was watching every move I made. Though younger than the man in the corner of my room, Granddad resembles him—bald on top, hair sticking out from the side, and a mischievous look in his eye. His role in the books grew beyond what I originally intended because he’s a scene stealer and takes over the stories. He functions as Val’s confidant, foil, and sidekick, although he’d argue that she’s his sidekick.

In Scam Chowder Granddad throws a dinner party for people he’s met at the local retirement village. Some younger guests, including a reporter, also come to Granddad’s chowder dinner. He conceals from Val the real reason for the party—to expose one of his guests as a financial scammer targeting retirees. But when the scammer goes face down in the chowder, Granddad becomes the chief suspect because he lured the scammer to the house on false pretenses and served the chowder. So Val and he work together to prove him innocent and figure out which of the other five people at the table could have slipped poison in the scammer’s chowder.

Scam Chowder Cover3I became interested in fraud against retirees and read up on the crime when my father was targeted by scammers. In discussing the problem with my friends, I discovered that everyone in my generation has stories about attempted, and often successful, scams against older relatives or neighbors. Scams against seniors are rampant, underreported, and under-prosecuted crimes. With Granddad in my cast of characters, I had a perfect setup to explore these crimes.

Retirees aren’t the only people who fall victim to financial scams like bogus investments. Bernie Madoff swindled a lot of people who weren’t retired. But scammers target older people for good reasons. Retirees have nest eggs to invest. They want their money to grow to make sure they have enough to last as long as they live. They also want to pass on the fruits of their labors to their children and grandchildren. The lure of higher return on investments is hard to resist, particularly in the last few years, when interest rates have been low. So older people, like younger ones, fall for a “too good to be true” investment opportunity. However, they aren’t as quick to report swindles.

Once older people realize they’ve been defrauded, they are often unwilling to tell anyone about it. They’re ashamed of themselves for being taken in and afraid they’ll lose control of their money if their relatives find out about the fraud. Even if the victims report the fraud to the police, it’s unlikely they’ll get their money back or that the con artist will be charged with a crime. Financial fraud can look like bad investment advice. You can’t demand restitution and put someone in jail for bad advice. In cases where the fraud is blatant enough for a criminal charge, the con artist counts on older victims being bad witnesses whose memories are hazy. Delays in prosecution also work in the scammer’s favor because everyone’s memory for details fades over time. If you want to know more about financial scams against retirees, visit the FBI web page:

Please share your stories about attempts to defraud retirees. The more we raise awareness about these crimes, the better our chances of stopping them.

MayaCphotoMaya (Mary Ann) Corrigan, lives outside Washington, D.C., not far from the Chesapeake Bay area where her Five Ingredient Mysteries are set: By Cook or by Crook, Scam Chowder, and Final Fondue (June 2016). Winner of the New England Readers’ Award and the Daphne du Maurier Award in unpublished Mystery/Suspense, she taught writing, detective fiction, and American literature at Georgetown University and Northern Virginia Community College. She posts trivia about food and mysteries on her website:

Readers: Do you know anyone one that has been victim of a scam?

23 Thoughts

  1. Fortunately this didn’t happen to any elders I know personally, but a friend’s mother was swindled into signing up for a new roof she didn’t need. Thanks for bringing this story into the light, Maya!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Edith, and mentioning that type of swindle. A scammer shows up at the door and tells the homeowners that their roof is going to leak or a tree in the yard might fall on someone. The work they convince the homeowners to do is unnecessary, costs much more than it should, and sometimes isn’t done at all.

  2. Hi, Maya — I’ve read and enjoyed both your books and am delighted that you have another one on the way. Thank you for your efforts in helping raise awareness of scamming. I just received an e-mail from a bank that looked very legitimate, but I was still suspicious. I forwarded the e-mail to the bank and learned that it was from a scammer. So I’m warning everyone that if they receive an e-mail, letter, or phone call, don’t respond to it. Call the financial institution’s customer support number and ask them about it.

  3. Thanks for joining us today! I’ve gotten so many calls about my computers having a virus that are supposedly from Microsoft. Fortunately, I always knew they were scams.

  4. Maya, loved your books (and enjoyed meeting you at the joint launch party). Your book highlighted the problem with fraud against seniors and is an excellent vehicle to introduce a tough topic to a senior citizen. I was very happy to share your books with a good friend of mine who is 94 and living in a retirement community. She enjoyed the story and has shared it on. In my view, your book is an excellent mystery coupled with a great public service announcement!

  5. So sad that there are so many scammers targeting these most vulnerable people! Don’t you feel some days that everything seems like a scam – emails, phone calls, people collecting for “charities” I’ve never heard of? I am glad you’ll be able to serve some justice to a scammer in your new book.

    1. Hi Shari, Thanks for your comments. What really bothers me about bogus charities is the way they exploit people’s good qualities. The donor wants to help others, but the money is diverted into the hands of swindlers. This type of scam also has a sad ripple effect — that potential donors may not give as much to genuine charities because the number of fake charities makes them suspicious of all charities.

  6. My mother had a friend who was a victim of the “Canadian Grandparent scam,” where someone calls, says he is her grandson and that he’s gotten in minor trouble with the authorities while traveling abroad and please, please, please don’t tell Mom and Dad because he is so embarrassed. Just wire money. it’s hard to believe people don’t recognize their own grandson, but the call is a very rushed, “I just get one phone call,” type of thing.

    The elderly uncle of my manicurist was taken in by a driveway paving scam. The scammers were harassing him when he couldn’t come up with the crazy amount of money they demanded in cash. I begged her to call the police, but like many immigrants, she didn’t want to get involved with the authorities. They negotiated a lower number with the scammers and paid them off.

    1. Hi, Barbara, Thanks for commenting and sharing those stories. When I was signing books last weekend, a woman told me she’d received a call from her “grandson” like the one you described. The woman had only granddaughters so it was easy for her to recognize the scam, but both of us were amazed that anyone could mistake a stranger for a grandchild. The scam must work occasionally or swindlers wouldn’t keep using it. Your story about the manicurist’s uncle shows that immigrants, as well as retirees, are prime targets of scammers, who count on the police not being brought in.

  7. Another series I should really start reading.

    I’m fortunate, I don’t have stories of people in my life who have been scammed. But it is scary the stories you do hear and the number of people who fall for them.

  8. Shedding light on an important issue. It seems that every day there is a new scheme and a new way for schemers to reach out. I’ll definitely be investigating your book. The dolls remind me of the apple dolls I bought for my parents a few decades ago . . . which I still have, pretty well preserved, actually.

  9. Thanks for visiting Maya! Thankfully, I haven’t had any first-hand scam experience so far but now I’ll have a few ideas about what to watch for because of your post.

  10. Great post, Maya. I worry about some scammer hitting up my mother. And I am obsessed with the Bernie Madoff debacle.

    I was once almost the victim of a scam. When I lived in NY, I got a call from a man saying that he was a police officer and my brother had been in a car accident. He manipulated enough information out of me for me to think he was sincere – until he told me I needed to bring cash to a very sketchy location to help out my brother! Yeah… I don’t think so.

    1. Thanks, Ellen, for sharing that story. It’s doubly bad that the caller, in addition to trying to scam you out of money, also frightened you about your brother. What kind of lowlife does that kind of thing?

  11. Thanks for pointing out the use of a serious theme in a cozy. Recently some writers in other mystery genres have expressed doubt that cozy mysteries should entertain serious issues as if murder itself is not serious.
    My mother was the victim of a scam soon after my father died. Some siding company took her money and promised to side her house. She never heard from them again, and I was unsuccessful in tracking them

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