These people lost everything―right before retirement

By Erin Daley, Espresso

Imagine you’ve done everything right in planning for your retirement so that you could enjoy your golden years, and then, whether through a scam, natural disaster, addiction, or downturn in the stock market, you lose everything right before it’s time to retire or once you’ve already retired. That’s what happened to these people—here are their stories.

Living on Social Security

Kurt Sipolski of Palm Desert, California, thought he was ready for retirement, living modestly on $2,100 a month. Then he invested $150,000 in a real estate development deal that would earn him an income during his retirement. But when the project went belly up, Sipolski, along with hundreds of other investors, lost everything. With no savings left, he cashed in his pension and now lives on $654 a month in Social Security benefits.

Unable to pay rent

After driving a bus for 35 years, 70-year-old Bobby Bradley is looking for work after investing $215,000—his entire life savings—with Los Angeles investment advisor Thomas Mitchell, who turned out to be running a Ponzi scheme. Another bus driver, 67-year-old Frances Wills, also invested with Mitchell and now has just 75 cents left to her name and can’t pay rent after losing her $156,000 retirement fund in the same scheme.

Working at a grocery store at age 90

Ian Thiermann had already retired when he learned from a friend who managed his investments that he’d lost everything—a whopping $750,000—in the notorious $50-billion Ponzi scheme run by Bernie Madoff (pictured).

The retired owner of a pest-control company now has no savings, still owes money on his house, and, at age 90, is working at a grocery store just to survive.

Losing your nest egg

Margaret Davis, an 84-year-old living in Montreal, Canada, lost $200,000 of her retirement savings after investing in Earl Jones’s infamous Ponzi scheme. Davis lost 90 per cent of her retirement nest egg and, according to her son, was thrown into a “survival mode of existence.”

Losing your job before retirement

Electrical engineer Peter Young spent 35 years working as a contractor for NASA and was starting to think about retiring. Married with two kids and a house in the Maryland suburbs, all was going well. But in 2011, the space shuttle program came to an end and he was unable to find work. He spent two years searching for work, to no avail. To stay on top of their mortgage, the Youngs withdrew from their 401(k), but eventually lost their house to foreclosure and were forced to move into their adult son’s apartment. They survived on food stamps and food banks.

After his wife inherited a small sum, they were able to buy a modest home and Peter, now 66, runs a small business repairing radios and amplifiers. But with his credit destroyed, he struggles to buy the tools and equipment he needs.

Gambling away your retirement

At age 72, Maureen O’Connor, a former San Diego mayor and heiress to her late husband’s $50-million Jack-in-the-Box fast-food-chain fortune, now lives with her twin sister after losing her beachfront estate in La Jolla, California—and everything else—to video poker. Her gambling addiction even led her to commit money laundering to fund her habit.

Falling victim to pension fraud

In Vale of Glamorgan, Wales, care support worker Jennifer Ringstead and her husband, who lost over £65,500 (approx. US$83,000) and went bankrupt, were just one example of the many victims who lost large sums of money to a pension fraud. The scam started with an unexpected call, text, or social media message with the offer of a free pension review or a way to get better returns on pension savings. But instead of being properly invested, the money was either stolen or put into a high-risk scheme. Now the couple has nothing saved for retirement and must start over from scratch.

Working as a security guard instead of retiring

At age 70, Warren Mills, a former English-as-a-second-language teacher in Canada, cannot afford to retire. Instead, he works three days a week as a security guard—which is all he can manage at his age.

Mills lost nearly everything by entrusting his investment portfolio to an unlicensed advisor who served as the chief financial officer at his church. In 2013, one year after retiring, Mills received a call from the Canada Revenue Agency because he hadn’t filed his taxes since 2009, even though the advisor was allegedly doing his taxes. That’s when he knew something was wrong—instead of over $200,000 in the bank, he had less than $25,000.

Defrauded by your own accountant

Mendal McEwen, who has dementia, lost $250,000 of his retirement savings to fraud when his supposedly trusted accountant encouraged him to invest in a risky financial scheme. In 2016, McEwen was placed in a long-term care home due to dementia. While moving his things, his daughter discovered a strange-looking agreement that he’d signed in 2008. She quickly became suspicious and discovered her father had been conned into taking the money out of his registered retirement fund, incurring a heavy tax bill for doing so, and wiring the money to an unknown source.

Losing everything to fraud

After years of carefully saving for their retirement, Penny Wasser and her husband Marvin lost nearly $500,000 in a scheme that left them unable to pay their bills or even afford groceries for a spell. The couple was conned by a man claiming to be a Los Angeles Police Department detective, asking for their help in an investigation to combat identity theft. After months of being entangled in a complex scheme, the couple was shocked to discover they had just $194 left in their bank account. Now they live on the husband’s pension and their Social Security benefits.

Losing your 401(k) to identity theft

Imagine checking your 401(k) only to discover it’s empty. That’s what happened to Steven Voss. Luckily, the retired engineer who lives near Salt Lake City, Utah, had moved most of his money out of the account before then, so he “only” lost $42,000, which he was later able to recover. Apparently, looters had called the investment company that holds his account and pretended to be him—with alarmingly little information: just his name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number. The caller asked to cash out his 401(k), but have the cheque rerouted to a UPS store, not his home address.

Retirement destroyed by debt

Gordon Hines, a retired 67-year-old math teacher from Sydney, Canada, was forced back to work due to debt. From mortgage payments on his trailer park home to credit card debts, Hines has had to work during his retirement as a construction worker, car salesman, and security guard just to pay the bills.

Losing everything and moving into an old RV

Like so many others, Dolores Westfall of Los Angeles, California, lost her home and her savings during the 2008 financial crisis. With only $1,200 a month in Social Security benefits and $190 a month from her pension, she sold everything and moved into an old RV. At age 79, she roams from state to state, taking odd jobs just to survive.

Disappearing 401(k)s

Kathleen Coleman worked nearly 30 years as an executive assistant on Wall Street—with little to show for it. At age 54, Coleman saw all her 401(k)s plummet. She lives alone and has resigned herself to the fact that she’ll have to work for the rest of her life to survive, but fears no one will hire her at her age.

Pension fund cut

Ron Husk of Mount Pearl, Canada, worked for the major retailer Sears for 35 years, building up a pension in order to retire. Then Sears went out of business and overnight his pension dropped by 30 per cent—almost $450 a month. The 72-year-old former appliance salesman is among 18,000 retirees feeling the pinch. Husk now works as a greeter at Home Depot to stay afloat.

Losing everything at age 60

Dinah Jefferies and her husband Richard planned to retire in Spain, but the 2008 financial crisis turned their world upside down. The couple was painstakingly restoring their retirement home on the border of Portugal when the market crashed—decimating their savings and wiping out the value of their home. They had to sell their retirement home at a loss and return to Gloucestershire, England, along with thousands of other Brits who were forced to abandon their dreams of retiring in the Mediterranean.

Suicide due to lost retirement savings

Bernie Madoff’s massive fraud destroyed the savings—and lives—of thousands, including 65-year-old William Foxton, a British soldier who lost a hand in Afghanistan and served in UN humanitarian missions. Tragically, Foxton committed suicide after losing his life savings in the Ponzi scheme.

Losing your life’s work due to fraud

Among those who lost everything in Bernie Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme was Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and author Elie Wiesel (pictured). Not only did Wiesel lose his entire personal wealth to Madoff, the scheme also wiped out all $15.2 million of his charitable foundation’s assets. “All of a sudden, everything we have done in 40 years—literally, my books, my lectures, my university salary, everything—was gone.”

Losing everything to fire

Martha Pichotta lived in a 35-year-old mobile home in Paradise, California. Then, in 2018, the 65-year-old lost everything in the Camp Fire wildfire. She didn’t have insurance and was subsisting on $900 a month in Supplemental Security Income, a federal welfare program for those with disabilities. After the fire, FEMA gave Pichotta $1,100, the amount they determined her trailer was worth. She now lives in a low-income apartment complex but does not have the means to furnish it.

Losing your home in a flood

Imagine you just put your home on the market a few short weeks beforehand and now it’s under water—literally. Mary Courneyea of Ottawa, Canada, put her small bungalow up for sale with the intention of retiring. She had even picked out a one-bedroom condo where she planned to enjoy her golden years. Now, due to flooding, the 63-year-old can only access her home by canoe. With no insurance against flood damage, Courneyea fears she’ll “be in the hole for the rest of [her] life.”


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Home Magazine: These people lost everything―right before retirement
These people lost everything―right before retirement
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