A Gilbert mother faces felony theft and fraud charges after police say she manipulated an 83-year-old widower to lend her more than $270,000.
Nina Costello has declined to comment on the charges against her. According to court records, Costello told the victim she loved him and convinced him to invest in her scrap metal business over the course of at least two years.
"She was very convincing," the alleged victim told 12 News. He asked not to be identified for this story. "I thought, 'Wow, she really knows what she’s talking about,' you know?" he said.
Police often label women who attempt to con older men for money as "sweetheart swindlers."
“The eventual goal is the house, the insurance policy, the will," said Toni Brown, a former Phoenix fraud investigator and member of The National Association of Bunco Investigators. The organization exposes scams against seniors. “They (sweetheart swindlers) are preying on a generation of men who for a majority of their lives have never been alone. They are often widowers. They were married most of their lives."
How one scam was brought to light
Costello allegedly told the victim that she was broke after escaping an abusive relationship in California and needed money for a business investment. The victim—who we're calling "Donald" for this story—gave her a small amount and she initially returned a profit for him. He then gave her more money.
"I really trusted her," he told 12 News. "I was retired, I was looking for something I could put some money in."
As the partnership progressed, the alleged victim became suspicious about Costello and began recording their phone conversations. The recordings show Costello at times begging for money.
During an argument between the two, Costello appeared to admit the ruse.
"All I got to do is scam some other old guy," Costello reportedly says on tape. "Thanks for the couple hundred grand, buddy."
As the indictment lays out, Costello “told the victim that she loves him in attempts to play on his emotions in order to obtain more money from him."
During one moment of desperation, Donald gets Costello to agree to something investigators say rarely happens: She signed a contract.
The alleged victim eventually provided police with the evidence he had gathered. The Arizona Attorney General's Office is prosecuting the case.
“Having evidence of this type is almost unheard of," Brown said, who is not involved in the prosecution. "I would say for a gentleman for his age, he is extremely sharp and on the ball, and I would have to give him credit for bringing his own case to justice.”
Experts say "sweetheart swindler" cases are rarely prosecuted because the alleged victims don't collect the necessary evidence, or they are too embarrassed to go to police.
"They (sweetheart swindlers) know how to work the system," Brown said.
Could there be more victims?
Fraud experts say there are likely other victims because Costello has an association with a larger network of career thieves.
"And I’ve run into quite a few of the families who use Phoenix as their base," Brown said.
Costello and her family are singled out in a website called “Life of Scams," which was created by an anonymous alleged victim. The website alleges Costello and her family members have scammed others by using fake names and stories. The website also says that Costello ascribes to the "Gypsy" lifestyle.
“It’s awfully difficult to understand or know whether there is any truth to what has been stated on the Internet about those kinds of allegations," said David Derickson, Costello's attorney.
Brown says people who ascribe to the Gypsy lifestyle believe they are chosen by God to be thieves.
"They are born, raised and taught that philosophy—that they have a right to steal," Brown said. “There’s dent scams, imposter burglaries. The higher level scams take a little more time. They would include the sweetheart swindles, fortune telling or psychic scams.”
Police say the tactics that Gypsy followers use on the elderly can be especially sinister. One sweetheart swindler case dating back several years ago involved a suspect who introduced herself to a widower at a Valley casino. The woman, who called herself Jill, gambled with him over several days at the casino.
“On about the fourth day he finds a note in his coat pocket from his deceased wife that says he should trust a woman named Jill," Brown said. "He truly believed that it was his deceased wife who was telling him she wanted him to have a relationship with her."
David Wood, a former criminal prosecutor and practicing attorney who handles fraud cases, says he believes Costello has victimized others.
“I can confirm that I absolutely know that he (the victim) is not the only person who has been victimized by Nina or Tina Costello’s scams,” Wood said. "Part of how these scams work is that after the fact, they know how to prevent the elderly victims from reporting this to their family or to law enforcement either through embarrassing them or continually perpetuating the scam."
The alleged victim in this case told 12 News the entire ordeal has been a costly lesson.
“If you’re gonna have a relationship where it takes money or any other thing where you’re really trusting them, there needs to be some real scrutiny,” he said.
Costello has since been arrested, charged and ordered to wear an ankle monitoring bracelet. Her trial is set to begin on Dec. 9.
12 News intern producer Alejandra Gamez contributed to this story.