David Brewster of Wadsworth has a cautionary tale he wants to share.
He was the victim of a scam that could have potentially cost him a lot.
But unlike the quick-hit scams, such as someone claiming to the be the sheriff or IRS and you must go make some payments right away, Brewester’s scammer worked him for more than a year.
When Brewster, 78, phoned me, he was the first one to say in hindsight, he should have known better.
He's also not very tech savvy — and the scammers were banking on that, he said.
While I’ve heard of times when scammers will hold on to your information — perhaps from a data breach — for more than a year before trying something when you least expect it, I had never talked to a consumer who had been laying the groundwork a year before the scam.
About a year ago, Brewster agreed to a computer service that would do periodic checkups. He doesn’t recall if he saw a computer pop-up or got a phone call.
For about $7 a month, he would get a monthly call from a man with a thick foreign accent named “Frank” saying everything was OK.
Brewster didn’t think anything of it — until a month ago.
Frank called and said Brewster was owed money because the company was going out of business.
Brewster told Frank he was amazed he was getting a refund.
“He said: ‘We’re honest people. We’ll put it in your bank account,’ ” recalled Brewster.
Brewster was sent an internet link and told to type "150" for his refund.
“I did suspiciously, but eventually I did it,” he said.
Frank told Brewster to go online to make sure the deposit showed up.
There was a $15,000 deposit in his Huntington account.
“Hey listen, you’ve made a mistake," Brewster told Frank. "You’ve put $15,000 into my account, not $150.”
Frank became panicked, saying he'd messed up and his kids would starve.
Brewster said he'd transfer the money back to him once he contacted the bank. But Frank insisted that Brewster not involve the bank. He needed to get the $15,000 in cash, telling Brewster to mail it to him. When Brewster refused, Frank told him he’d send someone to get it. Frank grew malicious and threatening before Brewster hung up.
Brewster contacted this bank. A banker saw the $15,000 had been transferred from Brewster's seldom-used home equity line account.
“He stole my money from me so I would wash it for him,” said Brewster. “I have to admit that I admire the brilliance and patience in all of this. But I felt very very stupid.”
As the banker was freezing Brewster’s account, Frank attempted to take another $15,000 and called Frank’s cell phone about 50 times.
“I’m very fortunate that I got very suspicious and went into the bank. I ended up losing about $4.50 - or one day’s interest out of the home equity," he said.
Brewster filed a complaint with the FBI.
FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson could not discuss Brewster’s complaint, but said “while we have not heard of this specific scam in our area, there are several red flags in the communication between the victim and scammer.
“We have heard of the ‘health checks computer service,’ especially targeting the elderly but not the moving money between your own accounts,” she said. Also, “the slow cultivating the relationship with the targeted victim is very common.”
Huntington Bank spokeswoman Emily Smith said: “This situation speaks to the importance of diligence in terms of protecting personal information, including login credentials, as well as leveraging online banking features such as transaction alert capabilities to be aware of all account activity."
The sophistication of scam operations and malware — which is when a scammer infects a computer with a virus or tracking software — has increased ten-fold in recent years, said Steven Sundermeier, president of Medina-based internet security firm Thirtyseven4 LLC.
“This isn’t somebody in their basement making these phone calls. This is specific white collar crime and a multi-billion dollar business” targeting those who are vulnerable, said Sundermeier.
“Frank” put in his time with Brewster, Sundermeier said, building trust and calling each month.
Brewster has looked over all of his credit card statements and online and financial accounts and has found no other evidence of money missing or even the $7 a month fee from the original offer.
Sundemeier said they probably didn’t want the $7 a month; they wanted $15,000.
By initially telling Brewster he was getting a $150 refund, the scammer made Brewster feel like he was “winning,” said Sundermeier. But in reality, he wasn’t.
“This is their business. You don’t understand how people can be so evil and so terrible,” said Sundermeier.” These scam call centers wouldn’t be growing if they weren’t having “success."
Brewster had anti-virus protection on his computer, but because he gave access to Frank, the anti-virus didn’t help. He has since had his computer scrubbed and the technician said he found a lot of things on there that shouldn’t be there. He has also changed every password.
Brewster said he feels dumb for having fallen for the scam and that he usually can tell when something is a scam.
“I like to think I’m pretty suspicious, but evidently I’m the biggest sucker... I was so fortunate that this guy overplayed his hand enough that I went to the bank.”
Beacon Journal consumer columnist and medical reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/topics/linfisher