It started with a phone call asking if I’d purchased an iPhone on my Amazon account. I said I had not. The caller said he would look into my credit record, and when he did, he found that my social security number had been “red flagged” because it was used to open seven bank accounts in different states, and these accounts were involved in money laundering. My stress level immediately spiked, and it remained spiked for about seven hours.
The caller, who gave his name as Sebastian Nye, said that at this point I was the prime suspect in the crime, and that all accounts linked to my social security number would be frozen or confiscated. The only remedy, he said, was to go to whatever banks I used to confirm my identity. I was further told not to hang up the phone or tell anyone about what he had told me because a “leak” of what the Treasury Department was doing would tip off the criminals. He also said it was a recorded line, to be used as evidence. I said I would leave immediately without explaining to Kim what I was doing, only that I was going to the banks, and that we were fucked.
I should note that every time I tell someone what I did, I realize how stupid I was. It is now obvious why I was instructed not to tell anyone about what I was being asked to do. Anyone with a functioning brain would have known it was a scam. I was away from the house, in total, for about eight hours. My two phone calls with Kim were both monitored, and I could tell her nothing except that I was OK.
From the parking lot of the first bank my caller told me I was to withdraw a specific amount of money, and they would check the withdrawal amount as a way to confirm my identity. He also said to come up with a good story about why I wanted the money, and to be calm and professional. I had a story involving getting cars for my kids, college graduation gifts for grandkids, etc.
After visits to two banks, I had about $19,000 in cash in envelopes. My next set of instructions led me to a number of stores to purchase gift cards – Walmart, Target, Lowes, CVS, among others. I was to purchase gift cards for $500, four or more from each store, and I was to use the self-checkout if at all possible to avoid questions about my purposes. The phone was to be on and in my pocket. Fortunately, some of the stores had built-in security systems to thwart the purchases. Apparently, scammers use the purchase of gift cards to rip off the elderly, among others.
After making my “successful” purchases (I only bought three cards), I returned to the car, spoke again with my contact, and was instructed to read him the various numbers on the cards. Who would have guessed that this was questionable? Not me.
Frustrated that I was unable to purchase more cards, Sebastian directed me to a gas station / convenience store that had a machine on which I could purchase Bitcoins. In retrospect, I’m glad I made him work so hard to instruct me how to put money into a Bitcoin account. The machine would not allow me to put the money into Sebastian’s account. Apparently, some scammers take money from stupid people that way. So now I have $200 sitting in a Bitcoin account, waiting for me to get help figuring out how to get it out.
Following Operation Bitcoin, I suggested to Sebastian that I stop at a Meijer’s supermarket to purchase gift cards. He was delighted with my suggestion. As it turned out, that was one of the few accidentally smart things I did. When I took the gift cards to the Customer Service desk for purchase, the guy working there, John, looked at me before I said a word and told me that he knew I wanted to put $500 on each card, and that I was to come up with a good reason why I wanted it, and that I was on the phone with the person giving instructions. “It’s a scam,” he told me. “I’m 100% sure it’s a scam. I see one or two of these a day.” I checked the phone in my pocket, and Sebastian had hung up.
My feelings at that moment were overwhelming. Yes, I felt stupid – obvious why to anyone reading this. At the same time, I felt relief, as the Treasury Department was not going to confiscate all my money and send me to jail. I was out $1,700, which stung, but John told me that many had been taken for a lot more. I immediately called Kim, told her I’d been scammed, and I’d be home in an hour. She said not to talk on the phone, to tell her when I got back.
Why did I fall for this? Let’s get past the “stupid” label, or even, with a more favorable spin, the “trusting” one. They started by stoking my fear – of losing all my money. Less than a month ago my VISA card had been hacked, and I had to cancel it and get a new one – a pain because of all the automatic payments involved. That fear got me hooked, and every stupid step I took planted the hook deeper.
They also had answers to my questions. When I asked why the initial iPhone purchase did not show up on my Amazon account, they said that they have an encryption software that hides it. I could not disagree with that. And at one point I asked how I could know that they were not scamming me, and Sebastian got quite upset and said that I might be jeopardizing the Treasury Department operation. I asked about my red-flagged social security card number, and I was told that when we were through I would go to a Social Security office, go to the Emergency Desk, and get a new card and number. I’m glad I did not have to go through the embarrassment of trying to do that.
The caller also provided reassurance of various kinds. Each time he told me where to go so he could steal my money, he cautioned me to drive safely, and not to talk on the phone with him, though the line was still open. And late in the day, when I complained about my fatigue (I’d been at this, with very high stress levels, for about seven hours), he told me to get a bite to eat and something to drink before we resumed stealing my money. I ate a candy bar.
When I finally got home I was simply delighted to see Kim and my life with her. She had fixed me a plate full of hors d’oeuvres, and she set out much of our liquor collection on the kitchen counter. I spoke with Scott and Shariee on the phone, and they encouraged me to file a police report and to apply for refunds from Walmart and Target. I did this the next morning, a process that involves long waits on hold, a few dropped calls, some struggles with breakups and inaudible phrases, and requests to speak with Supervisors. I worked with Rockitcoin to get my $200 in Bitcoins returned to me. They said they could transfer $180 into my bank account, but I, newly cautious, declined to give them my account number over the phone, so they sent me a check.
I’m not at all confident that I’ll get any sort of refund from Walmart or Target. Why should I? I am now more or less at peace with my loss, seeing it as a tax on stupidity, or perhaps as a form of tuition for my education. And if any money does get refunded, I’ll see it as an undeserved gift.