(Editor’s note: This article is the result of a joint effort between the Detective Division of the Oregon Police Department and the Crime Prevention/Community Policing Division of the Lake Township Police Department. It was written by Ron Craig of the Lake Township Police Department and is a first-hand account of an elaborate scam of an area female retiree who lost more than $61,000 in the scheme.)
July 31 started out just about like any other day for a retired professional woman who lives in Oregon. But within the ensuing several days things would be vastly different for her, and not in a good way.
Ellen Smith, as we will fictitiously refer to her in this article so as not to reveal her true identity, lost a grand total of $61,387, thinking she was helping to catch a crooked bank employee she was told was suspected of taking money from accounts.
As she later learned, there was no such crooked bank employee, only two crooked people who were perpetrating a fraud against Smith.
“Unfortunately, her money is gone, and she’ll never get it back,” said Det. Mike Blazevich, who is investigating the case for the Oregon Police Department.
In this particular case, there were actually two scams occurring at the same time. The first one involved the hacking of her computer. While working online on July 31 and opening what turned out to be a bogus email, a message popped up on her screen informing her there was a problem which needed to be fixed by Microsoft. Smith then called the number she was advised to call for Microsoft.
She made contact with a man named George who told her he was part of Microsoft’s security division, providing Smith with a badge number and a security number. Feeling confident she was dealing with the proper authorities, Smith allowed the man access to her computer. It was all downhill from there.
The man told Smith where she did her banking, having gleaned this information from her computer to which he had just gotten access. He then told her it appeared her bank account had been compromised. He supposedly reached out to a female named Samantha, who Smith was told was a member of her bank’s anti-fraud division. Of course, Samantha was part of the scam.
“They both knew everything about my bank accounts,” Smith said, referring to very meticulous notes she had taken at each step. “That’s part of what made them so believable. I had experience with three cyber-attacks where I had worked, so I didn’t question (what was going on). They even told me my social security account had been breached”
The scammers told Smith $15,000 had been taken from one of her bank cards and was charged to a pornography website.
“I told them I needed to notify the police and Social Security about what was happening, but they told me they had already done that. Thinking they were who they said they were, I told them to just remove the $15,000 transaction, but they said there were hackers from eight foreign countries involved, and that they were working on closing my (bank) accounts,” Smith said.
Smith was instructed to go to various retail and grocery stores to buy $15,500 worth of gift cards for a certain retail store.
“I was so scared about what was happening, I was crying.”
After going to numerous stores and using two bank cards to obtain the gift cards, she was questioned by only one person about the unusual purchases.
“(That person) wasn’t overly concerned, though, and didn’t question it too much,” Smith said.
The next Tuesday, four days after the debacle began, the victim received a call from the man known to her as George, purportedly from Microsoft.
“He told me another $45,800 had gone from one of my accounts to a porn site in Colombia. I didn’t know why the bank couldn’t stop this, but I still went along with it,” Smith said.
Around 3:45 p.m. the following Tuesday, George called Smith and said she needed to go to her bank the next morning to withdraw $45,800 from the bank and wire the money to a Chinese bank in Hong Kong.
“I was told to make up a (reasonable) explanation for doing it in case someone at the bank asked. I was only questioned once by anyone at the bank, and I told them it was for renovations. That seemed to satisfy them, and no one from the bank asked any other questions.”
Smith said she had been told she would get follow-up phone calls after the wire transfer was completed, but that never happened.
“On Thursday, I tried to call George to see what was going on, but the phone number he had been using was disconnected,” Smith said.
On Aug. 7, Smith’s adult daughter contacted Oregon Police Department to report the scam.
“I did this. I don’t blame the bank,” Smith said. “I can’t believe I fell for this.”
Blazevich noted his department had put out information some time ago warning of such scams.
“Then two weeks ago, a gift card scam was thwarted when our department was made aware of it. We put things on our Facebook page to make people aware these things are happening,” he said.
It is important to know that banks, legitimate businesses, and government agencies will never ask people to buy gift cards or otherwise engage customers in an investigation of theft or wrongdoing. That would be a red flag indicating a scam is underway.