The scamming of Margaret

Margaret (*not her real name) recently shared her story with me of how she was scammed out of almost $12,000. She said even if her story helps only one Westlake/Bay senior, it would be worth retelling. We'll continue the series on privacy in the digital world in the next issue.

It started out as a text message from a friend: "My friend Margaret got her computer hacked and I need to talk to you."

When I called my friend, I found out that her friend Margaret actually reacted to a message that suddenly appeared on her computer screen while she was browsing. The message, purportedly from Microsoft, told her to call the number on the screen because her computer was infected. When she did, they eventually directed her to call another number, also given to her, which she was told is for the fraud department of a local bank in Cleveland.

A man calling himself Steve, from the supposed local bank's fraud department, said, "Your mission, Margaret, should you choose to accept it, is to help the bank catch several scammers they're after." Well, not in those words but convincing enough to make Margaret feel like Dan Briggs or Jim Phelps from "Mission Impossible" and that she was doing something good for humanity. Steve, before instructing her to go buy gift cards over the next several days, also reminded her to not tell anybody about participating in this dragnet.

Gift cards continue to be scammers' preferred way to get money from the victims because gift cards remain untraceable beyond the initial purchaser. Reading off the gift card numbers and the PINs to the scammers essentially transfers the value of the gift card to them while the record still only shows who initially purchased them. No paper trails lead to the scammers.

I told my friend that Margaret was embroiled in a scam and that she had to try to convince Margaret to stop talking to Steve and go to the police instead. Or better yet, have an officer stop at her home when Steve was supposed to call her again in a couple days.

Although my friend couldn't convince Margaret that Steve was a fraud, her insistence put enough doubt in Margaret's mind that she told another friend about Steve. That friend proceeded to google the telephone numbers and search results showed the telephone numbers being associated with scams. That finally convinced Margaret that she had been duped by Steve. The detective that showed up at Margaret's home said that there has been an uptick in scams against seniors.

Lessons learned

Margaret now knows that Microsoft, Apple, and other tech companies do not proactively monitor users' devices nor alert users to call them. If you get an unsolicited email/text, or suddenly a message appears on your screen instructing you to call a particular number, just don't do it.

Any payment requests – or requests for your PII (Personal Identifiable Information) such as your Social Security number, birth date, or bank account and routing numbers – are red flags and should never be followed through.

It is interesting to note that one retail store refused to sell gift cards to Margaret due to the large sum she was trying to purchase, even telling her point-blank that she was being scammed. But another retailer was happy to sell her gift cards in large sums. I wish more retailers would look out for any alarming gift card purchase patterns to help customers from falling victim to scammers. 

In the digital world and the real world, scammers have mastered their nefarious trade of telling a convincing story by leveraging this: human emotions. In Margaret's case, it was the emotion of altruism to help bring justice to an unjust world of scams that made her believe Steve. Margaret learned that contrary to what Steve was saying to not tell anyone, the best thing to do is actually confide in your family and/or close friends who can help you.

Tak Sato

Strategist and technologist with over 30 years of experience in the private sector. Holds Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Science and Executive MBA from Cleveland State University.

As Founder of the Center for Aging in the Digital World, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit empowering seniors with digital literacy, Tak connects the dots to help people utilize appropriate technology in their personal and professional lives while using digital literacy as a tool for seniors to avoid loneliness and social isolation

Read More on The Digital World
Volume 14, Issue 7, Posted 10:51 AM, 04.05.2022