Tampa Bay widow lost $700,000 in a scam, suit says. Is her bank to blame?

The 82-year-old woman continued to make large and repeated cash withdrawals even after red flags were raised, a lawsuit says.
A lawsuit claims an 82-year-old Hillsborough County woman was scammed into making cash withdrawals from her bank to pay a man claiming to be a lawyer representing her granddaughter in trouble.
A lawsuit claims an 82-year-old Hillsborough County woman was scammed into making cash withdrawals from her bank to pay a man claiming to be a lawyer representing her granddaughter in trouble. [ ELISE AMENDOLA | AP ]
Published Oct. 11, 2021|Updated Oct. 11, 2021

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TAMPA — The young voice on the phone told the 82-year-old widow it was her granddaughter calling. She was in trouble and needed cash fast.

It would turn out to be someone posing as a beloved grandchild to get money, according to a lawsuit filed recently in Hillsborough County civil court — a scam that people who deal in cases of elder abuse know well.

This time, the victim lost more than $700,000, the lawsuit says— much of her life savings.

Who’s being sued? Truist Bank, accused of negligence and allowing the woman to continue to make large and unusual withdrawals even after red flags were raised.

A Florida statute meant to protect vulnerable adults requires a bank that has reason to believe a customer is being exploited to report it, said Guy Burns, the Tampa Bay attorney representing Anna Nunn.

Records he received from the Department of Children and Families after the lawsuit was filed indicated someone did call the abuse hotline about Nunn’s unusual withdrawals — presumably the bank, Burns said.

But she was allowed to continue to take out another $500,000 after that call, he said.

“We think the bank’s conduct was negligent,” said Burns. “We think they turned a blind eye.”

A spokesman for Truist Financial Corporation said via email that the bank does not discuss client relationships or pending litigation and declined to comment.

Also, Burns said Nunn was never contacted by investigators after the call to the state abuse hotline. “I believe they should have,” he said. “We are going to investigate further.”

He said the records indicated their file was closed one hour and nine minutes after the call.

The Department of Children and Families did not answer questions in emails and phone messages from the Tampa Bay Times regarding Nunn’s case.

Nunn lives independently in the suburbs outside of Tampa. According to the lawsuit, the first call came in May from a woman claiming to be her granddaughter, who is in her early 20s.

The caller said she was in a car accident and needed money to get out of jail, and begged Nunn not to tell her parents, Burns said. Then she passed the phone to a man she said was her lawyer. He used the name of a local attorney not involved in the case, Burns said.

Scammers often employ names of legitimate professionals, companies and even celebrities to bolster their claims or in case they get googled.

Soon after, Nunn began withdrawing money from her account at BB&T bank — which merged with SunTrust Banks in 2019 to become Truist. She withdrew $8,000, according to the lawsuit. In less than two months, she would make a total of 13 withdrawals at branches in Plant City, Brandon and Apollo Beach.

Stories about why the granddaughter needed money grew: It was for people she had injured in the crash, it was to settle the court case against her.

“With every call, the story gets embellished,” Burns said.

Nunn was instructed to wrap the bricks of cash in padded envelopes and leave them for a courier to pick up, Burns said. Sometimes it was enough to fill a shoebox.

The lawsuit says that when the bank became “suspicious” and asked Nunn why she was taking out so much money, she said she was paying for home improvements to contractors who preferred cash — which was what the scammers told her to say.

Florida’s Adult Protective Services Act says anyone who suspects a vulnerable adult is being exploited must immediately report it to the state’s central abuse hotline. The law specifically requires this of banks, among others.

Records recently obtained by Burns indicated a phone call was made to state authorities in May. The records don’t name who called.

But according to a timeline in the lawsuit, Nunn made several more withdrawals totaling $500,000 after that. Burns said it was so much cash the bank told her they would need to pre-order because they didn’t keep that much on hand.

It ended in July with a final withdrawal of $100,000. Nunn ran out of money, realized what was happening and told her son, Burns said.

The suit seeks damages, attorney’s fees and costs.

Burns, who has handled cases involving elder exploitation, said to his knowledge, the Nunn case is not yet being investigated by law enforcement. He said it can be helpful to gather gather “discovery” — information about evidence and witnesses exchanged between lawyers as a case proceeds to trial — to present to investigators as a package.

“I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to find the person” who called Nunn, he said.

Burns’ clients have included Beverley Schottenstein, the 94-year-old Miami Beach retail matriarch awarded nearly $19 million earlier this year in her claim that her grandsons, then brokers at JP Morgan Securities, mishandled her money by forging her signature and making unauthorized purchases.

According to the FBI, the “grandparent scam” alleged in the lawsuit is a common scheme.

“Seniors are often targeted because they tend to be trusting and polite,” the FBI’s webpage says. “They also usually have financial savings, own a home, and have good credit — all of which make them attractive to scammers.”

To report suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation, you can call the state’s abuse hotline at 1-800-962-2873 or go online at