A few weeks ago I heard a story on the radio about a man who lost over $40,000 to online scammers, and I was absolutely floored by how anyone could be taken in by such a scam.
Please understand that online scammers are very good at what they do. If you are not actively expecting that every online interaction is in fact trying to steal your money, it is easy to get taken by them. With that said, anyone who cannot use common sense (which is not as common as it should be) possibly deserves to be swindled, if for no other reason then that their stories will make others be wary of every online interaction.
The story, as I understood it, was that the mark received an e-mail from someone claiming to be their anti-malware provider claiming that they had automatically renewed their subscription for $400. The mark, indignant that his account would be charged without his consent, complained and demanded a refund. The scammer was very happy to comply, but they accidentally refunded him $40,000 into his account, and not $400. Would you please, gullible Mr. Mark, send us the difference so that we can close your file? However, when you go to the bank, in order to avoid any unnecessary questions or fees, do not tell them that you are sending us the money for this reason. Rather, tell them that I am a friend who loaned you the money, and you are just paying it back.
The man did just that. At the bank, the teller (and the system) flagged the transaction immediately. It was so far out of his regular banking patterns, and they wanted to prevent him from doing anything that he would regret. The teller spoke with him, the branch manager spoke with him. ‘Mr. Mark, this looks like a scam, are you sure you are just sending the money back to a friend who loaned it to you?’ The bank did everything in their power to body block this transaction, but the mark insisted, and the wire transfer was sent.
A few days later, the original ‘refund’ was flagged as fraudulent from a non-existent account, and it was reversed. The transaction was nullified, the money was removed from his account. The wire transfer to the scammers went through because it was a legitimate transfer… even though it was a scam, the mark insisted against all advice on giving this money away. He is out $40,000.
In an interview, the man and his son admitted that they knew they were scammed, and that the money was likely gone forever, but they hoped that by coming forward and sharing their story, they might prevent someone else from falling victim to the same scam.
I learned a long time ago that there are four people that you should never lie to: Your doctor, your lawyer, your bartender, and your banker.
After I left the Army I gained a lot of weight very quickly. My doctor, seeing that my weight had ballooned to 280 pounds, told me that I needed to change my habits and lose weight. I told him that I was actually doing great – I had peaked at 325 pounds, but had turned myself around, and was down 45 pounds. Of course it was a lie, but he had no reason to doubt me. Had I told him the truth, I might have avoided twenty-five years of obesity that I am still fighting to this day. Do you think that is bad? How about lying to your doctor about a medication you are on, so when he prescribes another medication you wind up dead? There are so many reasons why you should never lie to your doctor… they cannot help you if you do.
Your lawyer’s job is to help you. A good lawyer will never ask you a question that he does not want to know the answer to, but what he does ask you he really needs to know. When you tell him the truth he can work with that, but lying to him (or her) will cost you, and it will never be pleasant.
Your bartender is usually someone who is there to listen, to pour you drinks, and to take your money. If you do not have a therapist, your bartender is a cheap (if not always healthy) way to get your problems off your chest. Unless he (or she) also happens to be in your social circle, he does not know the people you are going to complain about. Speaking the truth to the bartender is inexpensive therapy.
Your banker is trying to help you to not get swindled. This is not new and it did not start with online scams. A hundred years ago if you walked into a bank in Chicago and tried to withdraw your life savings, the banker would ask if there was a gangster threatening you or your family. They do not want you to break the law but they also do not want you to be robbed. Let’s face it… they make more money when your money is safe and sound in their care.
Why then would anyone listen to someone who told them to lie to their banker about such a major transaction? That right there should have thrown a big red flag! ‘Hey, a large multinational anti-malware vendor with a stellar reputation (that I do not even remember ever having done business with) not only accidentally overpaid me by $39,600, but they are telling me to commit bank fraud by lying to my bank! Maybe I should be suspicious and speak to someone about it.’ No, Mr. Mark walked into his bank, told the teller that he wants to send an international wire transfer that is far bigger than any four individual transactions that he had ever made. He told the teller that he was paying a friend back. He told the branch manager that he was paying a friend back. When both of these people told him that the transaction was flagged because it looked suspicious, he lied to them and said do it.’
My father, of blessed memory, was one of the most honest and upstanding men that I ever had the pleasure of knowing. He was an attorney, and he took his responsibilities as an attorney very seriously. If I asked him for legal advice he would always tell me up front that the area of law I was asking about was not his specialty, and that I should speak to a real expert… even if I was asking a question out of curiosity. Until the day he passed away, if I ever told him that I was starting something he would stress do not sign anything until I have had him or another lawyer review it. He gave me a lot of advice that I did not follow, but I do not think he ever gave me bad advice. He taught me to be honest… but he also taught me that when it is important, it is even more important to always be honest. While I do not think he ever mentioned a bartender, he certainly told me that lying to my doctor or lawyer or banker would always be a bad idea. He was right, and since the day I told my doctor that I had actually lost weight, I have not lied to any of these. I know that the one time that I did, it hurt me. That is a lesson that poor Mr. Mark, a retiree on a fixed income, learned the hard way.
The world is full of con artists and scammers who want to separate unsuspecting and innocent people from their money. There was a time that with the exception of traveling carnivals and dingy bars you would rarely encounter one, but the Internet has made it so much easier for them to target you… and they will target you. It costs them nothing to send out a million phishing emails trying to find a rube, and it only takes one catch to pay their salary for a year.
I used to deliver a lunch and learn session called Cybersecurity Awareness Training, for which my private name was ‘Scaring the Shit out of End Users.’ It was intended to educate users for a particular company (and then for many others) on what to be on the lookout for with regard to social engineering. I wish that I could revive that course, and teach it to every man, woman, and child on the planet. Maybe then, there would be fewer news stories about the elderly falling victim to scams like this one. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, common sense is not that common. It would not have taken ninety minutes in a class with me to figure out that this was a scam… it would only have taken the mark listening to the advice that his father should have given him.
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