The Nigerian prince has emailed me so often, I laugh. I know better than to furnish him with my bank account numbers. So, why did I give an online scammer remote access to my laptop a few years ago?
But I have my suspicions as do two other individuals you’ll meet today. Like Joe (not his real name) and Theresa, I consider myself savvy enough to sniff out a scam. For goodness’s sake, a former employer required cybersecurity training every year. Did I learn anything?
Furthermore, not one of us is elderly, lonely, or naïve. Are we impulsive? Risk takers? Slow on the uptake and emotionally stunted?—all traits Psychology Today listed as potential reasons for someone falling prey.
But that didn’t stop us from being taken by crooks who knew which buttons to push. Before any of us could screech to a halt and gather our wits spread out like roadkill, we were pulling out our credit cards, buying gift cards, and heading for the bank.
How were we scammed?
The most basic human emotion of all—fear. Scammers know how to get inside people’s heads, exploiting worries of financial ruin, crippling computer malware, and even harm to loved ones. In the end, victims feel violated, abused, and silly. How did they ignore their own better judgment?
Theresa is a nurse and mother of four. She was at work reviewing patient charts when her cellphone rang. A stranger, a man with a heavy accent, informed her he had kidnapped her daughter and demanded a ransom. Because she couldn’t reach her two daughters, son, or husband, her mind went supersonic.
Running past two of her coworkers with her purse and car keys in hand, she yelled, “My daughter has been kidnapped.” Both tried convincing her otherwise, but Theresa wouldn’t listen. “I totally disregarded my people,” she says today. “Normally, I wouldn’t have done that. I was in motion.”
Sometime between the initial call and her pulling into the bank’s parking lot, Theresa heard from both daughters. They either called or texted. She can’t remember, and it’s only then she realized she’d been duped.
More vivid is what she said when the so-called kidnapper called back with instructions. “Where are you. Why are you doing this,” Theresa asked in a firm voice. “He told me he was in jail and had to do what he had to do to support his family. I told him he should be ashamed of himself.”
The lecture continued as she drove to the police station.
If she expected justice, it didn’t happen.
“Ma’am, there’s nothing we can do about it,” the officer said, explaining the caller probably used an untraceable, computerized phone number not linked to anything or anybody. “I’m so sorry.”
Theresa went home, feeling sullied and stupid. Subsequent online research revealed the kidnapping scam had ensnared thousands of others, which didn’t make Theresa feel any better.
“I truly feared for myself and my kids.”
Feeling stupid is a common emotional reaction. Joe is so ashamed he won’t let me use his real name.
His victimization began within seconds of arriving at a local grocery store to pick up items his wife wanted. That’s when he received a text informing him of a serious credit problem. He called the number provided, a woman answered, and she forwarded Joe to a man with a heavy accent.
The man confirmed Joe’s accounts had been hacked, but not to worry. He could fix the problem, provided Joe made four, $500 gift card purchases from a national retailer.
Come on, Joe. Gift cards?
“I know,” Joe says, trying to remember details. “It seemed so real. This guy knew everything. He kept texting information that confirmed, at least to me, that my credit had been compromised. And do you know what? Those text messages mysteriously disappeared after I got home.”
At the scammer’s insistence, Joe went inside the store and inserted one of his credit cards to buy the gift cards. The transaction was denied, prompting a text from that company. “I should have known then,” he says. Instead, Joe called the scammer. He advised that Joe try another card.
By the time he got home, his stomach in knots, he knew a scammer swindled him. He called his credit card company, and, indeed, one transaction had posted. Three others were pending.
Does Joe’s story end happily?
Despite his request, the credit card company didn’t stop the three pending charges. When Joe called to complain two weeks later after getting his monthly statement, a representative claimed nothing could be done. Joe made the gift card purchases and a dispute couldn’t be filed.
He’s since mailed a formal complaint, vowing to end his 25-year relationship unless the charges are removed. “I still can’t understand why they didn’t block the three pending charges. Why didn’t they suspect fraud like the other credit card company? But more than anything else, why am I so gullible?”
Like Joe and Theresa, fear motivated me. While working one afternoon, an urgent message popped up on my laptop monitor, warning me of malware. I tapped the button, and my nightmare began.
As with Joe, the conversation with an accented man convinced me I needed to act immediately to prevent a major computer meltdown. So, I gave the scammer remote access to my computer—yes, I did that—and watched in horror as computer-code gibberish raced across the screen.
When the “clean-up” ended, the scammer said he’d successfully removed the malware and that he’d charge my credit card the next day. Foolish move on his part. As with Joe and Theresa, a sick feeling filled my gut. I called the credit card company, canceled my account, and changed every passcode I had.
I also filed a complaint with the FBI, listing details I could remember. The FBI never contacted me.
The moral of the story? Use your head? Don’t be so trusting? Don’t expect help?
How about a question, instead: Why don’t these evil-doer scammers apply their obvious talents to doing good?