Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #178. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Apr. 29, 2022; in print May 1

1. Computer screen flashes, strobe-like. Looks as if it comes from Microsoft (logo seems legit). “Warning: you mustn’t log out or turn off.” That’s exactly what I should do, but don’t.

2. I call suggested number. A woman answers, claims to be Microsoft, remotes my computer, runs some programs. “A Trojan virus in your bank accounts.”

“I will connect you to your bank on a secure line,” she says, “because your phone may be compromised.”

3. The main scammer, who pretends to be an ‘agent’ of my bank and who will stay on the line for the next three hours, says, “Some large charges have been made against your credit card, and you authorized them.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“But we sent you an email earlier today about the charges, and you replied with authorization.”

I check my email. They didn’t.

“Oh, this means the scammers stole your identity and have access to your email.”

4. The bank’s ‘agent’ assures me he is doing everything possible to prevent my losing the sums.

“I want to go to my bank to confirm this,” I say.

“Oh, no. The only person at your local branch who can deal with this has left for the day. Do exactly as I say, or you will lose all that money.”

5. He explains that to prevent the money’s transfer at midnight to the ‘authorized’ charges, I must purchase ‘dummy gift cards’ with my credit card, then read him the IDs and PINs so he can deposit the sums in a new account for me at the bank. His urgency blots out my knowledge that credit card charges, unlike debit card ones, are instantaneous.

“Don’t tell anyone what you’re actually doing. Say you have big family events coming up and require several large gift cards. If your card gets a ‘decline’ notice and you need to talk to the bank’s credit card company to lift it, I will connect you. Do not tell them what you are doing – use the same story about needing many family gifts.”

I am so bamboozled that the absurdity doesn’t register: my bank is instructing me to lie to merchants and to itself.

6. The ‘agent’ clearly has a Google map. He sends me to a nearby major national department store to buy 10 $1,000 gift cards. The sale is declined.

I go outside to ask the ‘agent’ what to do (he warned me never to talk to him in hearing distance of any store employee). While he connects me to the credit card agent, a store manager comes and says, “We can’t make such a sale. Do you know there’s a scam? Is somebody telling you to do this?”

I have already lied about why I am buying the cards, and, I think, “How could it be a scam if I am following my bank’s instructions?” So, I lie again: “No one is telling me to do this.”

7. Thwarted at the national store, the ‘agent’ directs me to local stores. I am not to buy their own gift cards, but cards from one or more of five national brands. These stores have daily limits on gift card sales, so while they are skeptical, they accept my lie about why I need them.

8. At three stores I collect six $500 gift cards from two national companies. After each of the three purchases I tell the ‘agent’ the IDs and PINs. Of course he immediately transfers the funds into something very different from the ‘account’ he had said he would set up ‘for me.’

9. At this point you’re saying, “How could you not see what was going on?”

I’ve asked this myself dozens of times. There is something about the way the delusion feeds on itself – a sort of addiction. These scammers get inside your head, inducing frenzy, panic. They have a rejoinder for every question. When I periodically ask, “Why can’t I tell the credit card agent why I am doing this?” I am told, “Oh, we are separate departments at the bank, and we don’t share information.”

10. Finally (and fortunately before I go any further), one store’s manager brings me a handwritten note of warning. This launches my suspicion: Maybe this isn’t all as it seems. I stop driving around (the ‘agent’ assures me the next stop’s gift card limit is $5,000), go home, sleep little.

11. Next day I go to the bank and learn that every bit of it was a con. I call the police.

12. The fiendishness: By persuading me I am the victim of identity theft, the scammers make me their thief.

13. Scam, start to finish. Federal Trade Commission knows it (https://consumer.ftc.gov/articles/gift-card-scams). Merchants know it. Banks know it. I – sadder (and poorer) but wiser – know it.

Now you know it too.

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