FOREST CITY — Tuesday, April 15, began like most weekdays for a retired Rutherford County woman. But the day was far from typical. In the middle of the afternoon a text message led to a nightmarish five hour interaction with strangers who attempted to scam her out of thousands of dollars.
Catherine (not her real name), agreed to speak about the events, but only if she remained anonymous. Catherine hopes her story will serve as a warning to others in Rutherford County, that scammers are real and the public must remain on guard.
Catherine received a text message from an unknown number, around 3:30 p.m., asking if she wanted to dispute a $699 purchase she made at Amazon.
“I was shocked. I had never ordered an item from Amazon, and do not have an Amazon card,” Catherine recalled.
The scammers convinced Catherine they were with Amazon, and she could dispute the item with them. They told her the item was charged to her checking account.
Catherine repeatedly told them, she would dispute the charge the next morning at her bank. But the scammers told her that was not possible.
The scammers told Catherine she had been hacked, and that she had to follow their instructions exactly, in order to rectify the matter.
“I felt confused. At the time I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” Catherine said.
At one point, Catherine was convinced to download software they had sent to her, onto her computer.
“I felt like I had to do this. I was made to believe that it was the only way,” Catherine said.
Once the new software was installed, the scammers had near-total access to her computer screen, and everything on her computer. They sent Catherine a form, and they went step-by-step, instructing her what to type onto the form.
“I complied, thinking it was necessary to get back the $699, that they told me had been taken from my checking account,” Catherine said. “I was told to type in $800 on the document. They said the extra was a ‘tip’ for my troubles. I know that it makes no sense at all.”
When Catherine typed in $800, an extra zero appeared on the screen, making the amount $8,000.
“I told them that immediately, and they acted shocked. None of this made sense to me,” Catherine continued.
After that, the scammer on the phone told Catherine that he couldn’t believe what had happened, and now his job was in jeopardy.
“They convinced me that Amazon had added $8,000 to my bank account, and I had to get that money back to them that night, or the guy would lose his job,” Catherine said.
And that was when the next phase of the elaborate scam began. The scammers convinced Catherine that a mistake was made, and that they would fix the error. They convinced Catherine to download software to her computer, which enabled the scammers to further convince her that now a much bigger error had been made, and an Amazon employee’s job was on the line, and that it was Catherine’s fault.
“I was very scared, and I felt trapped,” Catherine said. “I felt at that point that I was being held hostage, and ordered to do things I would not normally do.”
In hindsight, Catherine now says she especially can’t believe what unfolded next.
Several times the scammers would speak nicely, at times they were harsh. Sometimes speaking softly, other times screaming and berating Catherine. She was ordered to not turn off her phone or her computer. Catherine was ordered not to tell anyone else what was happening, and to not call her bank. She was confused, and yet, she continued to comply.
The scammers ordered Catherine to leave her house, drive to drug stores, big box chain stores, and grocery stores, to purchase gift cards. She was told to purchase these cards in the $500 range, so that she could “make up” a portion of the $8,000 that she had been convinced that she owes them.
“I was scared to death. They ordered me not to turn off my phone when I went into the stores. They could hear what I was doing. Looking back, it was like something out of a police drama, except this was real,” Catherine said. “In my mind, I had to do it.”
At some of the stores, she could only purchase a certain amount of cards from her debit card. So, Catherine was again instructed on how to call and get the limits raised.
“Sitting in traffic, driving to these places, a part of me knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this wasn’t right,” Catherine continued. “Something told me don’t do it. But I felt desperate. I believed I was helping a man not lose his job because of mistakes I had made.”
Catherine ultimately purchased gift cards, with a total value of $1,750. She was then instructed to take photos of them with her phone, and also to tell them the numbers on the cards.
It was nearly 8:30 p.m. when Catherine returned home after leaving the computer only to make the gift card purchases. The scammers said there was more to do on the computer “in order to straighten everything out.”
Catherine told them she would do nothing else on the computer that night, so they ordered her to keep the computer on, and they would contact her the next morning.
Even at this point Catherine did not believe she was being scammed. She thought the situation highly unusual, but did not believe anything nefarious was going on.
Catherine says she was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. Fortunately, she called a friend, and after some light-hearted small talk, Catherine began to reveal what had happened to her throughout the afternoon and evening.
“The friend could not believe it,” Catherine said. “She immediately told me to turn off the computer and to call my bank.”
“I told her I couldn’t do that. I had promised I would leave it on...,” she said.
The friend insisted that she had been scammed, and that she needed to turn off the computer, and call her bank.
“I finally took her advice, turned off the computer, and called a banker friend who also confirmed immediately that it was all a scam,” Catherine said. “I was able to contact my bank that evening, and met with the bank representatives the following morning.”
The scammers wound up stealing from Catherine’s bank accounts, a total of $8,000. But the bank was able to restore that to her accounts.
As for the $1,750 in gift cards? That’s a total loss for Catherine.
There were also costs related to essentially having her computer rebuilt.
“The people at the bank were very kind to me,” Catherine said. “They said this has happened all across the nation, and here in Rutherford County. I feel embarrassed, because I didn’t listen to my instincts as I traveled from place to place, purchasing the gift cards.”
She also spoke with law enforcement.
Catherine says the incident is a reminder to her that there are evil people willing to do whatever it takes to steal.
“Satan is alive and operating in this world,” she said.
Catherine says she is a trusting person naturally, and while she may continue to trust, she says she will be far more cautious going forward.
“Never respond to text messages from strangers,” she advises. “If someone calls you and claims to be representing a company, hang up the telephone, and call the company directly yourself.”
She acknowledges there were other red flags that she should have recognized.
“When the person on the phone tells you to not tell anyone, or don’t call the bank or don’t call the company....These are all signs that something is not right,” Catherine said. “And of course, never ever download anything on your computer sent to you by a stranger.”
Catherine has described the ordeal as an “out-of-body experience.”
“I have never experienced anything like that, and I hope to never do so again,” Catherine added. “This nearly caused me to lose everything financially.”