How I fell for a phone scam

by Serena Burman

Special to the Sounder

Last week, without telling my partner Ken, I withdrew thousands of dollars from the checking account we share. I couldn’t say a word because I was under investigation by the U.S. Marshal for money laundering, and if I told him he’d be investigated too.

I learned this after a Bank of America text alerted me about a suspicious transaction attempt on my credit card. I called the number to discover there were accounts in my name in California and Texas funneling millions of dollars through accounts in Mexico and Columbia. Because my case involved an ongoing federal investigation, the bank transferred me to the Social Security Administration.

Charles at the SSA stayed on the phone with me for hours, guiding me through every step of the day. He filed an “ADR Form” (a process to void my current social security number and issue a new one). He contacted the local Sheriff’s Office to request no action be taken regarding the warrant for my arrest. They called me to confirm what Charles said: I’d be visited by agents from the SSA and Treasury Department to issue and link my new SSN.

He stayed on the phone while I went to my bank. Money had to be withdrawn before my account was frozen (to keep the crooks out while the new SSN was being issued). He recommended a fake reason for draining my account, but I told him I live in a small town and we all know each other. He told me to be myself.

Yes, this whole thing was a scam. No, I hadn’t caught on yet (that call from the Sheriff showed the real phone number on my caller ID). My brain was busy doing acrobatics to make sense of everything. This tracks—I’m a pretty trusting person and the world is full of hackers and scammers.

It was weird when Charles said the protocol involved sending me a QR code which I should take, with my cash, to a bitcoin ATM. Like the super sketchy untraceable currency-bitcoin? I asked.

Charles laughed (right response). It was important the scammers not be able to detect I was on to them. He assured me the ATM was government-approved.

While we talk, I’m getting back-to-back calls from an unknown number. Then texts.

“Hello [no punctuation] We are calling you from USA MARSHAL [American flag emoji] GIVE US CALL BACK [no punctuation]”

I tell Charles (who has a South Asian accent and speaks flawless English) that it doesn’t sound like a native English speaker. He agrees the US Marshal wouldn’t contact me directly. Now, I need to drive to Bellingham (the nearest ATM). I explain I can’t get there until the next day. He says he’ll call in the morning.

I’m making dinner when Ken bursts in. “Did you withdraw everything from our checking account today?!?!?” I say yes, hold out a handwritten note that begins: I’m not legally allowed to tell you any of this … then explains the events of the day. When we step outside, Ken has a lot of questions. Many I can’t answer.

“There’s no way you’re putting our cash in a bitcoin machine. It goes in there and it’s gone. I’m telling you, Serena, this is a scam.”

He suggests I call the Sheriff’s office and see if they can confirm any of it. I know the answer before I ask, feel like an idiot saying “bitcoin ATM” aloud to a San Juan County Deputy. He confirms he’s heard a version of the scam multiple times this month. There’s little they can do. Bitcoin is untraceable.

I replay the day in reverse and reopen the text from BofA. What I didn’t see before: the date and time are formatted internationally. There’s weird spacing, a dash missing in the phone number. When I first read it, I thought vaguely about looking up the number, then clicked the link. Easier.

Minutes before this saga, I was listening to a podcast about the cult NXIVM, known for luring in many bright and famous people. A former member described the shame she carries, stunned she allowed herself to become so manipulated. I’m totally mortified I fell for an SSA scheme, especially right after listening to a story about manipulation. But I’m also stunned at the complex nesting doll of scams: multiple false agencies, spoofed calls, decoy scammers, and more. I knew about IRS scams, but nothing like this.

The next morning, I go back to Banner Bank to deposit our cash and tell them my story. They’re sympathetic, relieved I didn’t follow through. As I leave, someone calls out, “Remember, you’re not alone!”

She’s right. There’s no version of this story where I didn’t tell someone. Ken’s perspective is what broke the spell. Scammers and cult leaders thrive when they successfully isolate people, weaponizing fear over trust. I only spent a few warped hours in forced isolation, but I resurfaced deeply sympathetic to anyone who’s fallen down an internet rabbit hole or joined a cult or lost their life savings.

I understand why these experiences make people lose trust, but that’s not what happened to me. Instead, I’m reminded of the beauty of living in a town where the formality and abstraction of institutions gets watered down by the fact that we’re all neighbors. Island life can drive me crazy, but I’m grateful to live in a place where the parting words from a bank employee can be a reminder that we’re not alone.

How to recognize a scam

• Unsolicited calls from people claiming to work for a government agency, public utility or major tech firm, like Microsoft or Apple. These companies and institutions will rarely call you unless they have first communicated by other means or you have contacted them.

• Unsolicited calls from charity fundraisers, especially during the holidays and after disasters.

• Calls pitching products or services with terms that sound too good to be true. Common scam offers include free product trials, cash prizes, cheap travel packages, medical devices, preapproved loans, debt reduction, and low-risk, high-return investments.

• An automated sales call from a company you have not authorized to contact you. That’s an illegal robocall and almost certainly a scam. (Automated calls are permitted for some informational or non-commercial purposes — for example, from political campaigns or nonprofit groups like AARP.)

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