(NEW YORK) — Victims of Jen Shah’s telemarketing scam are speaking out publicly for the first time after the “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” star was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison.
Trisha, a 75-year-old retiree who lives in North Carolina and who asked not to use her last name, told “Nightline” she was “shell-shocked” after the Federal Trade Commission told her she may have been a victim of the scam.
“But it turned out to be true,” she said.
The decades long scheme involved telemarketers calling potential victims and claiming to offer services like website building and business coaching. Shah and her team specifically targeted older and vulnerable people, according to prosecutors. Shah pleaded guilty to wire fraud last July and was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison by a federal judge on Jan. 6 for defrauding thousands of people.
In 2016, Trisha created a website while attempting to start an online business. About three weeks later, she says she got a phone call from someone who gave her a business pitch.
“He did a sales speech about all of the perks if I went with them that they could teach me,” Trisha said. She paid the telemarketer $12,000 in that first transaction.
Over the course of several months, Trisha would finish a program, then immediately get a phone call to start a new one. The sales pitches were good, but full of empty promises.
“I invested more than half of the savings I had for retirement. I gave them directly about $47,000,” Trisha said.
It was Trisha’s story, and others like her, that would help bring down Shah’s network.
The FTC also found 44-year-old Iowa resident Molly McLaughlin, who said she went into bankruptcy after spending putting $44,000 on credit cards for the courses. “I couldn’t pay bills. I couldn’t make my rent. I really just couldn’t do anything,” she said.
Ralph Hallock, a World War II veteran, lost more than $100,000 dollars in the scam. He took his own life at the age of 92. His family told “Impact” they believe the scam contributed to his death.
There could be thousands of victims like them, according to prosecutors.
Trisha said she was hesitant to speak to the media, because she felt ashamed for falling for the scheme.
“I did feel shame. This is not easy for me, this interview, everything, because I’m telling the world I was stupid enough to get caught in a scam, and I’m not stupid person. But I did make a big mistake. Do I want to tell the world that? No, I really don’t. But I don’t want other people to have to go through that shame that I went through,” Trisha said.
As “Real Housewives” viewers watched the excessive wealth on display every episode, they had no idea that federal investigators were already on Shah’s trail. Even before the show debuted, the feds had been arresting suspects connected to Shah’s telemarketing scheme.
After Shah pleaded guilty, a trove of evidence against her was released. In text messages, Shah and her co-conspirators, including Stuart Smith, discussed ways to keep customers hooked and spending more money.
“[Shah] often joked about the victims’ suffering and her employees’ ability to victimize them,” stated a sentencing memo from federal prosecutors.
Trisha was one of several victims who submitted victim impact statements to the judge before sentencing. Others included a man who said he became homeless after the scheme.
For years, Trisha says she didn’t have any idea who was behind the scam that stole her retirement money. It wasn’t until months after Shah pleaded guilty that Trisha found out a “Real Housewives” star was linked to her case. Trisha said she is not a big TV watcher and had never seen the show.
Most people in Trisha’s life had no idea it happened to her — not even her family knows just how bad it got.
“I am just recovering from being in deep depression. And I’m gonna cry. You get to the point where there is no way out. That started when I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I saw my mother and my brother both die that way,” Trisha said.
Trisha now says she’s on a mission to help potential scam victims.
“Anyone that we can stop is a gift to the families,” she said.
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