Anatomy of a scam: How criminals can victimize almost anyone

Photo (c) Safri Ibrahim EyeEm - Getty Images

A recent victim of the Microsoft support scam shares her story

It was a Friday morning. Rebecca (not her real name), a recently retired college professor, was sitting at her computer when a popup appeared on the screen, warning that Microsoft had detected unusual activity and that her computer had been “blocked.” 

She was instructed to call the “helpline” at 1-888-796-6668. A Windows Security Alert, nearly identical to the ones generated by Windows Defender, displayed the same message. 

Rebecca picked up her phone and called the number, beginning an hours-long odyssey that ended with Rebecca losing more than $20,000 to a sophisticated team of criminals before she realized she was the victim of an elaborate scam.

It started with “Jack Williams,” the alleged tech support worker who answered her call. He walked Rebecca through running diagnostics on her device. He then delivered frightening news -- her identity had been stolen and her phone had been hacked. He said he would call back from a “secure line,” which he did.

“He said the diagnostics showed hundreds of attempts at hacking my computer and also showed my phone was compromised and this was all coming from China,” Rebecca told ConsumerAffairs.

Fear and salvation

As her fear rose, Rebecca did not stop to consider how a Microsoft tech could know her identity had been stolen or that her Verizon phone had been hacked. Scammers count on that. They keep building the fear, then offer salvation.

“He then said he would call me back once he had secured my computer, but then they could see that a transfer of $10,500 was pending with American Express to and that since the phone was hacked when American Express contacted me to verify the money, they diverted the contact and approved it,” Rebecca said.

Now, Rebecca was beginning to panic. She was told she was being transferred to American Express’ fraud department but was instead handed off to a female member of the scam team, who said her name was “Lisa Morgan.”

Even more bizarre turn

Next, the story took an even more bizarre turn. The alleged American Express fraud specialist explained to Rebecca that they could store the stolen money on “secure cards,” meaning gift cards. “Lisa Morgan” stayed on the line with Rebecca for hours as she went to various Target stores and purchased 38 gift cards totaling $20,800.

“She told me I needed to give her the card ID and access numbers so she could put the funds back once a 24-hour freeze on my Social Security number was complete,” Rebecca said. “I asked her repeatedly about why we needed to remove these funds and she said once the freeze was put on my Social Security number all assets would be seized. So I gave her the card IDs and access numbers.”

After Rebecca provided the numbers, the scammers disappeared, along with her money. 

Her story is a cautionary tale about the importance of knowing how these criminals operate, including how they engage in psychological operations that prevent people from thinking rationally about their situation.

Vital information

Here is some information that every consumer should have to avoid this type of scam:

  • Microsoft says its error messages never contain a telephone number. Microsoft also never initiates a telephone call.

  • Scammers try to create a sense of fear and urgency. They want the victim to act without thinking.

  • The scammer tells the victim not to tell anyone what they are doing. This is always a sign of a scam.

  • The victim is told to pay using gift cards. This is a scam 100 percent of the time.

Once she realized she had been the victim of a crime, Rebecca did everything correctly. She contacted both American Express and Target to report what happened. She also filed a report with her local police department.

More importantly, she told her story. She says she hopes it prevents others from falling victim to scams.

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