Several months ago, I published a piece detailing how I became victim of a scam, and fortunately the payment for the article restored the money I had lost. My editor asked if I had learned anything from what happened, and my smart-ass response was “probably not.”
As it turns out, I was right. Last week I was victim of two scams, though only one of them was a result of my foolishness.
I received a second notice from a debt collection company, claiming that I owed $1,200 to AT&T, whose phone service I discontinued about eight years ago. I ignored the first letter, but when Experian, the credit security company I use, contacted me about the debt, I made a few calls, waited on hold for a combined total of well over an hour, and learned that someone had purchased an iPhone 12 in my name. The debt collectors sent me a bundle of forms to fill out, including a police report, which I dutifully mailed in. The sheriff suggested I put a freeze on my accounts with the three major credit reporting companies, so nobody could open an account in my name without my giving permission. I think that has solved my problem.
While I was dealing with this I received an email, purportedly from PayPal – the letterhead looked real – saying that I had paid a charge of $500, but they thought it might be fraudulent. I called the number on the email, and “Mike Wilson” told me he would help restore my loss. Through an embarrassing series of stupid mistakes, he set up a process where the $500 would be deposited back into my checking account. But whoops! By mistake he deposited $5,000! Must have been my typo (he said) on a form I filled out! But he would help me send mistaken $4,500 from my bank to his – but I only had two hours to do this, or he would be fired, he tearfully explained. Good guy that I am, I agreed to help. Fool that I am, I granted him access to my computer, including my online banking, so I could get my $500 back, and he could be refunded his $4,500. I also agreed to drive to a PayPal “office” located in a Target store in Traverse City. Fine. Kim and I immediately hopped in the car and were on our way. “Mike” had told me, for some unknown reason, to leave on my cell phone. He also said to be sure I brought my checkbook and debit card with me. He also said that if we got disconnected, to phone him from the Target parking lot, but don’t go into the store. Anything suspicious so far?
I’m glad the drive to Target would take an hour, for that gave me a little time to think, and we decided to stop at our PNC bank along the way. Kim and I had to whisper that plan, as the phone was on, and Kim announced she had to stop and go to the bathroom, and I said I needed to stop for gas. We spoke with a banker for about ten seconds before we realized we were being scammed by “Mike.” I hung up the phone. He tried to call me twice, and my phone told me that the call was coming from Hawaii.
We spent the next six hours at our PNC bank – freezing our accounts, opening a new checking and saving account, and moving some money into them. And surprise! – there was no extra $5,000 in my checking account. “Mike” had moved $3,000 from my savings to my checking, as he could access that account using my debit card, whose numbers I would no doubt give him from his “office” in the Target parking lot.
No harm done, except for the wasted day and the load of stress I was carrying. And Kim and I were both pleased that the PNC bankers who helped us through the process, especially T.J. and Scott, were so personable – they became, in a short period of time, something like friends. T.J. even gave us a sponge version of a piggy bank for me to squeeze for stress relief. And Kim gave him some healthy treats as a thank-you. It’s easy to think of banks as cold and impersonal institutions, but our experience helped us realize banks, and the people who work there, can be more than that. With so much done online or through impersonal call centers, it’s good to sit down with real people, even though the nearest PNC branch is an hour away.
Have I learned anything? I have learned to take my security more seriously, and I’m better off with the steps I have taken. I have also learned to consult with Kim more frequently, as she has a much better Bullshit Detector than I do. (But if you learn the same thing a second time, did you really learn it the first time – or the second?) The scammers are everywhere.
A few of my foolish mistakes:
· Not calling PayPal directly to check transactions.
· Not checking with my bank to see if I’d been charged the $500 that I was supposedly getting back.
· Agreeing to leave on my cell phone and in touch with him for an hour or so – what f…ing sense does that make?
· Drive to Target? Really?
· Most importantly, granting someone access to my computer. I’ve done this before, always successfully, when getting help from Apple or Adobe, but these are calls that I initiated.
Kim and I are also trying to simplify our lives, where possible. So far, that means getting rid of old credit cards and reward cards, most of which have expired from disuse. Buy less stuff online, especially clothes, which rarely fit and often are not well made. Use cash, provided the person at the register knows how to count change. I’d remove myself from social media, except I’m not on any.