If only, she says, she looked at the caller ID and hadn’t grabbed the phone so quickly that morning when she was washing the dishes.
If only, she wonders, she had hung up when the woman on the line told her an order for $1,581 was placed on an Amazon account that she doesn’t even have.
If only the scammers didn’t keep talking, putting one new character after another on the phone and fueling fear that she needed to act quickly or she’d lose her money.
The con game — which started around 11:30 a.m. and ended shortly after 5 p.m. on May 4 — enabled the crooks wherever they are located to pocket about $5,000 for a half day’s work.
And the scammers stole more than money.
Fearing that family finds out
The woman now questions herself at every turn. She reported the fraud to Troy Police the next day but hasn’t told her friends or family members. She’s embarrassed, angry and unfortunately often blames herself for being gullible, not recognizing that scammers run a very sophisticated game that play the odds that they will catch someone off guard.
“If you don’t know who is calling, don’t talk to them,” she advises everyone now.
The woman talked to me by phone about two weeks after the ordeal as a way to try to warn others. She asked that her name not be used because she fears her family finding out — especially since she lost money to another scam a decade or so ago.
“I’m just angry — and I’m mad at me,” she told me.
She usually doesn’t pick up when she sees caller ID. But this time she did.
“This time, I talked to them. It sounded legit,” the 79-year-old widow said.
The call starts out about Amazon but shifts to money laundering claims
The latest round of Amazon scam calls have an odd ring of authority. They play up ID theft and make a claim that money was laundered through bank accounts opened in your name and Social Security number at a handful of institutions all across the country.
The script is convincing enough that at least one other Michigan woman lost cash to it recently, too.
The calls appear to have three steps: The initial caller claims to be from Amazon and tells you there has been a fraudulent purchase on an Amazon account.
Then, the conversation quickly turns to reveal that you have bank accounts with four or five well-known names — Wells Fargo, PNC Bank, Bank of America, Chase and others. Maybe that’s where you really bank, maybe you don’t and will let it slip where you do have accounts.
Last, you’re told that someone has used your identity to open up a string of bank accounts.
A call that began from Amazon somehow ends up with a federal agent on the line to convince you that you’ll be arrested soon because you’re now suspected of money laundering. The caller might imply that hundreds of thousands of dollars were transferred into questionable accounts opened with your ID information.
The solution? Withdraw money from your savings and then buy gift cards or Bitcoin to address the issue.
More:Amazon scammers are slick, good at what they do: Here’s what to watch for
It’s all a scam.
It’s similar to the scam calls that claim your Social Security number has been suspended because a car was rented in your name and involved in illegal activity. Or the scam that claims you owe money to the Internal Revenue Service and must pay now or be arrested.
But these Amazon scams appear to be getting some traction this spring.
How the scam went down in Troy
The Troy woman said early in the call she was switched to another woman who appeared be from the credit union where she and her husband opened up an account decades ago.
Then, the woman switched her to a man who claimed to be a U.S. Marshal and said he was going to open up a fraud investigation because several bank accounts had been opened using her stolen ID and they appear to be involved in money laundering. The man had an accent, maybe from the Virgin Islands or Cuba, she recalled.
She said the imposter pretending to be a U.S. Marshal claimed that $270,000 had been transferred out of one of these new suspicious accounts at one point.
“I never had $270,000 in my life,” she said. “I was going to be arrested for fraud.”
The so-called U.S. Marshal, according to the Troy police report, told the woman that she needed to remove all of her money and load it on gift cards to prevent it from being seized by the government.
The so-called U.S. Marshal — who claimed he was Jack Sheehan — convinced the Troy woman drive to her credit union to withdraw $6,500 in cash. She told the teller that she had bought carpeting, which she did and joked that everything is costing a lot these days.
Then, the so-called federal agent on the line told her that she had to drive to a Kroger at Dequindre and 18 Mile roads to buy four $500 gift cards.
To get access to the cash, the scammers had her read off the numbers on the gift cards once she loaded money onto them.
She read the numbers on the cards to the so-called federal agent while sitting in her car in the parking lot.
“I said this is stupid,” she recalls thinking then, “but I did it anyway.”
Later, the man with the accent demanded that she drive to a Meijer store to buy more gift cards for Sephora, which sells makeup and fragrances, and more Visa cards.
She bought those cards, too. But the woman, who is diabetic, did not eat all day and eventually, she got tired and upset and ultimately refused to drive anywhere else to buy more gift cards. She said she put about $5,000 in all on various gift cards.
She drove home, didn’t answer the phone and called the Troy Police the next morning. She still had $1,500 in cash but knows that the scammers would have kept demanding more and more money. At one point, she was getting calls every 15 minutes but did not answer them.
When the Troy Police visited the woman’s home, she said, the officer sat at her kitchen table and made calls for each gift card to find out how much money was left on all the gift cards that she bought. Each card had been drained to $0.
More:Baby formula, CBD gummies, calls from Amazon — all potential scams
The U.S. Marshal character told her the money she withdrew from her credit union would be held due to the laundering investigation and then returned in a few days.
It never was.
Amazon warns not to buy gift cards
I wrote about a disturbing rise in Amazon impersonation scams in late 2020 and then in the spring of 2021.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel reissued an alert in May 2021 to warn consumers about the increase in Amazon scam calls.
After many reports of scams and phishing attempts, Amazon said last week that it changed the look of its order confirmation emails to now include a “Smile” logo next to emails as a way to verify that the email is legitimate.
“Customers can be confident that when they receive an @amazon.com email with the Amazon smile logo in their inbox, that email is really from Amazon,” said Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide customer trust and partner support in a statement.
The company said it is implementing leading-edge email verification technology to make it easier for customers to identify phishing emails and harder for scammers to commit fraud.
More:Alerts about ‘suspicious activity’ surge, as crooks impersonate Amazon
In December, Amazon launched an online customer self-service reporting tool standardized reporting for those receiving suspicious communications. The data will help Amazon improve its systems and processes to stay ahead of bad actors.
Last year, Amazon said it took action against more than 350 individuals and entities involved schemes where customers were contacted by those impersonating Amazon — the majority were referred to law enforcement.
Amazon also is warning consumers to step back and take some steps to protect themselves:
- Do not trust anyone who says you must act now or creates a sense of urgency.
- Be aware that scammers may try to use calls, texts, and emails to impersonate Amazon customer service.
- Remember, Amazon will never ask you to buy gift cards — “verification cards” as some scammers call them.
- Amazon also does not ask customers to call a toll free number in its order confirmation emails. Instead, Amazon customers should log in and check their Amazon order history before taking action.
- Never pay over the phone. Amazon will never ask you to provide payment information over the phone.
The Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan & the Upper Peninsula has received 11 reports of Amazon phishing scams in Michigan since January.
“The thing about these types of scams is the scammers are going to say whatever they can to keep you on the phone and following their instructions,” said Ashley Gibbard, marketing manager for the BBB based in Southfield.
“Once you start a conversation with the scammer, they are going to use fear tactics, such as saying you may be money laundering, to take advantage of you and gain access to your personal information or get you to pay them money,” she said.
How a Flint woman ended up losing $4,500
A Flint area woman only picked up the call because she thought it was her boyfriend.
Instead, it was an automated call telling her to press 1 or press 2 regarding an order that supposedly involved $999 charged to her account for an Apple MacBook Pro.
She knew she didn’t buy anything. When she responded and talked with someone, the caller told her that the Apple device was being sent to an address in Brooklyn, N.Y.
She has 30 minutes for her lunch on her job. So she couldn’t talk long but was willing to talk after work when the conversation indicated that she would be a victim of serious ID theft. The man told her that she could not tell anyone anything about this development.
She was told there were five different banks across the United States where accounts were opened in her name and Social Security number. One she remembers was Bank of America but she could not remember the other ones.
“I said ‘Well, I have no idea about that and that is not true because I have never opened another bank account,'” said Taylor Inman, 26, who received the call in late April.
Later that afternoon, scammers convinced her that the U.S. Department of Treasury would now need to get on the case because it looked like the victim was involved in money laundering.
She would have to deal with the U.S. Department of Treasury in Washington, D.C. The man on the phone said his name was James Anderson and gave her some credentials and a similar story about all those bank accounts in her name.
“I was like, ‘No, I’ve never done that or anything. So that wouldn’t be me,’ ” Inman said.
He suggested that she’d either have to hire an attorney to fix the matter or work with authorities right now. She agreed to act now.
He stayed on the phone for much of the process — and told her not to tell anyone.
She went to her bank and withdrew $4,500. He asked her early on to tell him the reason she would give the teller for why she was withdrawing the money. She said she’d say bills and a car repair.
The teller didn’t ask anything at first but when she did, Inman told her about the bills.
Later Inman said she told the bank that the teller should simply ask upfront: “Is somebody telling you to take this money out of your account?”
Of course, someone who is scared might answer “No” to that one as easily as they’d talk about car repairs or carpeting.
Once she had the money, the so-called federal employee told her to go to a gas station in Flint and put the cash into an account using a QR code at a Bitcoin ATM there.
She called her boyfriend at one point to meet her at the ATM. He tried to tell her it was a scam. She didn’t believe him. He called 911 and they told her it was a scam, she said. But it was too late. The money was gone.
Once that process was completed, the con artists told the victim that an agent would stop by her home that afternoon to return her money, according to a summary of her story by the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan & the Upper Peninsula.
Inman said the imposter Treasury agent told her that someone would come to her house to give her a new Social Security number, she could show the receipt of this Bitcoin transfer to her bank and then everything would be ok.
No one ever showed up — and her account basically was emptied out.
Inman, who makes about $13 to $14 at a factory that packages auto parts, said she was left with about $266 in her savings account and $200 in savings.
She turned to her mother for some help, got some help from her boyfriend and now is applying for food stamps to get by in order get back on track and pay her mortgage of $908 a month.
The bank isn’t giving her any money back; the Bitcoin ATM isn’t giving money back.
“It’s stressful,” Inman said. “But I’m just thankful that I’m still able to pay my bills.”
One positive aside: A few days a later, she said, her boyfriend saw a woman and her father at that same gas station and they were on the phone and trying to put money on Bitcoin at the ATM. He warned them of the scam and she believes he helped save them from losing money.
Inman said she wanted to tell her story so that other young consumers who might not be aware of such scams would know that the IRS or Amazon aren’t going to demand money on Bitcoin.
“I will never trust a Bitcoin machine again,” she said. “I am not answering any phone calls unless I know the number. If they’re important, they can leave a message or text me.”
ContactSusan Tompor via email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter@tompor. To subscribe, please go to freep.com/specialoffer. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.