A phone scam

The automated caller informed me that there had been suspicious activity on my bank account:  “Press 1 to be connected to a federal agent.”

There was nothing right about it from the beginning.  Because I know that so many people have been victimized, I decided to learn what I could about the experience.  I pressed 1.    

Speaking in heavily accented English, a female “agent” identified herself as “Gracie Williams” and offered a “federal badge number”.  She said: “You are under suspicion for narcotics money laundering.  There were several transfers from your accounts to Colombia, totaling almost $200,000 over the past few days. 

“The enforcement arm of the Federal Reserve Bank, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Treasury Department, and the Attorney General are all working together in a joint investigation, and we may need to come to your house in 45 minutes to arrest you unless you cooperate fully. 

“You are speaking on a recorded line and all of the federal agencies are listening.  It is very important that you be truthful.  It is also very important that you speak to no one about this investigation.”  

Under questioning, I gave the “agent” a false name, date of birth, nearby zip code, and last four of social security.   

She purported to look the information up and reported that 18 bank accounts had recently been opened in the false name.   She named several major banks.  She detailed specific transfers to Colombia and asked me if I was certain that I knew nothing about them.  “Have you ever been to Colombia?  Do you know anyone in Colombia?  Are you sure?” 

She warned me of the gravity of the situation and warned me to speak to no one about it.  I found myself afraid even though I knew it was all a sham. 

I played along through progressively more detailed interrogations by several other “agents.”  I realized that I was being vetted.   

Finally, having satisfied themselves that I had money in the bank, was alone, and was trusting enough to fall for their story, they told me that regrettably, my bank accounts had to be frozen.  

I protested my innocence.  They told me that another agent would call me back. 

Officer “Marcus McCoy” called back.   He reassured me that they trusted me and appreciated my cooperation. I was a good person.  He would help me.   

Then he went in for the kill.  To protect my funds, my funds needed to be transferred to a “safety locker.”  He would stay on the line with me while I travelled to the bank and got a cashier’s check for $205,579.  They left me something to get by on – that amount was only 80% of what I had told them I had. 

“We will be watching on the bank video cameras to make sure the criminal is not following you.  Do not speak to the teller about why you need the check.  You have not spoken to anyone about this, correct?” 

I went through the motions of getting into my car and going to the bank in a way that was sufficiently convincing that he then gave me an actual person’s name and physical address to mail the check to.  Still under his direction on the phone, I went to the UPS store and overnighted an envelope (with no check) to that person.  

The next morning “Agent McCoy” called and started to explain that I was in serious trouble for sending an empty envelope.  At that point, I berated him and ended the game. 

I thought again and again about how hurtful their game could be to vulnerable people.  They implied that they knew my every move and sought to isolate me from family or friends who might talk me out of my folly.  Their legal threats were all ridiculous, but they made the threats so forcefully that I found my heart pounding.  

Belmont law enforcement was very responsive, but they didn’t get much cooperation from Florida law enforcement in following up at the physical address that I sent the letter to.  There is so much of this going on that law enforcement’s ability to help is limited.   

By sharing stories, we may help others avoid the traps.

Energy bill scams. A constituent from Watertown shared a story about people going door to door asking to see energy bills. This is a known issue, although not always an outright scam. More hear on the Mass Consumer Affairs Blog.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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85 Comments

    1. What an awful experience. I think you were brave to go as far as you did. These people are hateful. I once yelled at a scam caller and told him to remove me from the list. I could just about hear a smirk as he told me he would if I paid him $100.00.

    2. Government agencies do not call asking for money. Period. We need more PSAs to drive this point home. I know this because I am a govt employee and we have scammers impersonating my agency all the time. I’ve even gotten spammer calls on my GOVERNMENT PHONE. Talk about bold. These scammers have Zero shame whatsoever. They should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

  1. Will: Thanks for following through the whole process. It is very good to have that kind of thick description of what to expect. I always hang up the first minute and I have been told never to press “1” on these occasions.

  2. Thanks, Will. educational.
    For those who have iPhones (there may be an equivalent feature for Android), you can set the phone to send to voice mail calls from numbers that are not in your contact list. I love this feature since i don’t have to listen to the spam / voice phishing unless I want to make sure it is not legit.

  3. Thanks for posting this Will. Very important that these type of stories get published for all to see. We should all share with friends and family.
    JB

  4. Will, I’m sorry that happened to you. When they called me, I said, “I need to get your name, because I am a government employee, you are being monitored, and I know this is a scam.” I started reading them the riot act, telling them I was tracing the call, they were being recorded, and that law enforcement was listening. I said if he cooperated, I could help lessen the charges he will get, but he had to be honest. He broke down and said he was running this scam with his friend and couldn’t figure out how to get out. I told him it was obvious – I could hear people in the background, etc. I told him he was scamming Alzheimer’s grandmas and that he could be a legitimate businessman if he wanted and not go to @#$%. I encouraged him to turn himself in. Apparently he didn’t – or he did, and this is still his business partner. You played defense, I played offense, but either way, it is important to not get scammed. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  5. Wow–incredible story. Better than a novel–and more scary. Thanks for pushing it to the limit so that we all can learn from your brave example. My father (of blessed memory) used to compliment women by saying that women were so effective because we talk with others about what is going on. Your example shows that among all people, sharing information and experiences is critical to our collective good. Thank you, Will. You are a mensch!

  6. Will, you coulda slipped some baking powder in the envelope, and wrote that it was ricin.

  7. Wow! What a story! Thank you for investigating this fraud. Maybe you should report this via The Boston Globe as well. Every day I get numerous threatening or deceitful calls, and I also think of those who feel truly vulnerable for whatever reason and might really be harmed.

  8. I find myself wondering about both the resourcing issues (” There is so much of this going on that law enforcement’s ability to help is limited. “) and the organizational issues (because these scams often cross state or national borders, no local police department will be able to do much). Computer crime in general seems like it requires a different approach than our historical primarily locally law enforcement methods, maybe something on the national level with a mandate around these types of crimes (phone scamming, identity theft). I don’t know if there’s anything you can explore around that issue at the state level, but it “feels” to me as if petty crime like this is going more global, and we as a society are failing to keep up.

  9. Will – very interesting and helpful. I have been interested in this kind of thing for a while and I follow a website where people do reverse scams on these guys.

    The only reason I raise that now is to tell you something I learned from these reverse scammers: “be very very careful when you mess with these people.” They are dangerous criminals and can and have resorted to violence. The reverse scam site specifically urges users of the site to NOT do what they are doing. The reverse scammers tend to be IT professionals who have the time and resources to set up untraceable phones and email addresses. Be careful!

  10. You should contact Post Office Postal Inspection Service. They have jurisdiction over stuff like this, especially if you sent the overnight letter by USPS. As a public official, you are likely to get more attention than John Q Public. Additionally, since it was done interstate and involves the financial system, it is federal, so one of the many federal agencies should be notified, FBI, Secret Service, not sure which. And Florida is the home of thieves grifters, and con-artists. Number one in the nation for Medi-care fraud, just today massive arrests for patient brokering, and historically for land fraud, and public corruption. It is the charm of the state I think. And as far as Florida Law enforcement goes, I think they consider this kind of behavior a feature, not a problem. It brings in money.

  11. Speaking of phone spam, several times a day I receive calls from 617-741-0708. I’ve blocked the number on my cell but the calls continue. There is no one on the line. It seems like a bot. How can I make this stop?

    1. If you have Verizon service (and maybe others), sign up for NoMoRobo, which has a constantly updated list of numbers scammers use and will hang up on them. It’s free (for Verizon customers).
      https://www.nomorobo.com/
      I’ve even gotten scam calls that my phone identifies as NOMOROBO! But it’s not from them. They don’t call you.
      Also works on Android & iOS. Not sure which carriers participate.

  12. Thank you, Will for bravely investigating this scam undercover. Not many political leaders do this; you should publicize this. I almost became victim of a collection agency that wanted me to renegotiate my student loan. The man asked for all sorts of personal and financial information. Then he asked me for my bank account number. I told him that I preferred to send him a check. He told me that his company would withdraw the money every month, but I refused to give him my account information. Then I asked for a contract, but he said they didn’t issue forms, that they did everything verbally over the phone. I told him that I refused to send money until I got some forms in the mail. Ultimately, I told him no and hung up. A few minutes later, our HR administrator came to my office, and told me that a collection office had called about me. The man had asked about my salary, etc., but she told him that they didn’t give out that information. I’ve learned that if someone isn’t willing to send you the information in writing, then it’s a scam.

  13. A very scary journey indeed. I once had a call from a so called computer service who said they were working with Microsoft and that they had noticed a vulnerability in my system and were reaching out to me to make the fixes. They wanted a $500 by credit card and access to my computer. I strung them along for a couple of days and put an end to it. (I am an Apple user so the ploy was wrong immediately). They kept calling me for weeks. The phone number appeared to be in India but it is hard to know where the calls are really from. There are some people who fall for this scam and since the credit card payment goes off shore (I assume), recovering your money is near impossible. There are so many vulnerable people right now especially as a result COVID looking for the pot of gold to help them or are so fragile that they are easily frightened that there needs to be a quick action hot line to help. No one should ever be told not to seek help from the authorities.

  14. If I don’t recognize the name or number on caller ID, I just don’t answer it and let it go to voicemail. Then, if they leave a message, I can decide whether or not to call them back. Most of the time, there’s no message. If you answer the phone when they call, they will know that you’re a “ live one” and they will keep calling. Thanks for all you do, Will!

    1. I’ve not answered and blocked the number repeatedly. They don’t leave a voicemail. I tried to trace the number online through BeenVerified and nothing comes up. Nothing works to make it stop.

    2. Thank God for caller id, we get over a dozen calls a day from all manner of random numbers. Never answer any number you don’t recognize; the only ones that leave a message are the scammers saying my credit card will be charged $300 for an Amazon purchase, but if I didn’t make that purchase be sure to call them back right away………to give them the credit card number so they can “correct” the error. Right, never give out the number.

  15. Florida law enforcement too busy arresting Black people for existing and pepper-spraying people protesting against brutality to catch actual criminals.

  16. Just this morning I started reading a special report in the most recent AARP newspaper about how the scammers operate. It’s a must read. An IT guy from Ireland figured out how to hack into their system and track how they do it. Scamming has become a major international business.

  17. Is there really nothing government can do to prevent this type of thing? What are some policy options that would make this kind of thing stop? I’m sort of confused about why the “best” solution is to make sure everyone knows not to trust anyone who asks for anything.

    1. This is a policy choice. The podcast Reply All reported out a good story or two on the topic. Telecoms haven’t wanted this to be taken seriously by politicians, so it wasn’t.

  18. Thanks for posting this Senator Will.
    Emails received sometimes look real with the name of the agency slightly modified such as “socialsecurtiy”. Don’t rush it and press the go-ahead, because it looks like social security.
    Phone scams are played by two types of actors: the bully and the very kind, both in an attempt to convince the listener. Upon suspicion, and since you have not requested what is offered by either, don’t fall in the trap. The solution is -shut the phone-.

  19. Great story, Will! I’ve played along with the scammers, too, but not to the extent you did – good for you! Thanks for sharing with us!

  20. Yes thank you for the information and sharing the experience. It has helped to better understand and be prepared.

  21. Kudos to you, Will, for exploring this scam as far as you could. How sad that law enforcement agencies are effectively indifferent to this form of theft going on in our midst.

    We’ve turned off the ringer on our home phone because the volume of spam calls had become so great. We simply check the messages once or twice a day, to see if there have been any legitimate calls that we care to return. That happens only occasionally. Our regular contacts know to call on our cell phones if they want to reach us. The spam is much less there, and easier to recognize on the screen before picking up.
    Alan Altshuler

  22. Such an interesting story, Will. It is best not to play along with these scammers because of the risk of giving away some bit of personally identifying information or having your phone number increasingly targeted for more of these calls.

  23. Is there anyway a state law could be passed making it a felony to provide a masked caller ID for the purpose of defrauding?
    I get many bogus calls from telemarketers for whatever that have phony caller ID’s. If I dial them, they are not in service.

    Also the funniest one I received was a call claiming to be from Amazon.com wanting to “refresh” my credit card number, so I dutifully gave him 16 digits from an old scratch ticket and a made up expiration date with a made up 3 digit pass code.
    Later the same number called me back but knowing it was him, I ignored him.

  24. Hey, Will, this is good stuff, good that you went through it and share the experience with others. The question I have, could you have alerted the Law Enforcement in Florida and have the empty envelope delivered by them to produce an arrest?

    1. Unfortunately those addresses are often just vacant homes, airbnbs, or other places where money mules wait for the delivery. The packages are overnighted with tracking so the mules know where to be. The drop locations change daily as the money mules move up and down the coast to avoid attracting too much attention in any one location. Unless the police are notified quickly, and proceed to also wait at the location, no arrests will occur. All the more reason the scammers instill fear in and push the victim to tell no one, so that by the time the victim realizes they’ve been ripped off and report the crime, the money mules are on to the next town.

      1. Right. But they also had a bank account in the name of the person at that address — who did show up on google at that address. So, if someone had followed up promptly, they might have been able to do something.

  25. Will, this is very helpful information, and thank you for sharing it.You were very brave! Even if I’d been sure it was a scam, I don’t think I’d have enough nerve to play along. Kudos to you!

  26. I’ve asked the Watertown paper to do a story on scams because every week in the crime report are people who have been scammed. Getting folks to buy gift cards and then they give the scammers the card numbers – happens constantly.

    Regarding phishing emails and online scams, don’t click on the links provided in the email even if it looks like a valid email from your bank, credit card company or retailer. Instead open your browser and type in the valid web address. I uncovered an Amazon scam this way and one claiming to be from Bank of America.

    Thanks for the information.

    Mary

  27. Hi Will,
    This reminded me that I have received several scam calls lately. A man asks “Is Curtis there?” When I say there is no one by that name here; he must have the wrong number he proceeds to ask me if I can donate to some vague organization to help the police (?) I said no and hung up. I have continued to get 3 more of the same calls. I just say wrong number and hang up. If I get a call again I’ll block my number. We’re on a do not call list. I sympathize with you for the aggravation you endured. – John

    1. And your response reminds me of someone calling asking for “Brad”..” Is Brad there?” He’d ask in a southern accent..

      Me: “No, you have the wrong number.” Him: “Well maybe you can help me?”. My unspoken thoughts- help you with what? I already did by informing you that you have the wrong number!

      Obviously, this person was hoping to prey on others with the desire to assist someone in need. I never asked what he needed “help” for.

      This guy called me twice a month for two years-I stayed in their data base awhile, but I’d just hang up to his “Is Brad there?” after the initial “you have the wrong number” thing, and it seems he has finally given up.

      This is my public document of this particular crap.

  28. I received a call like this this morning! Reported it to the FTC right away. I always think about how my senior family members might fall for something like that. People willing to scam the elderly are rotten.

    There is a YouTube channel you might be interested in, where they interact with scammers and report them, as well as help people who have been scammed get their money back: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCC9EjyMN_hx5NdctLBx5X7w

  29. Yes, people keep falling for this and other phone scams re relatives, etc. I am retired from the BBB (Better Business Bureau) & I recall years ago getting calls from consumers wanting to know basically, should they “bite and follow through” on such calls? We reminded them the scammer was calling them not they calling the scammer, so no, never respond to such from an unknown caller, irregardless of the story. The Story is fake, the Scammer works, perhaps from another country, and never bite and give them ANY information.

  30. If I have time to listen to their riff I usually ask them to call me back and I give them the number to the FBI, Boston office.
    But ofc the point is that people do fall for these treacherous scams.
    Need better follow through by Federal agencies as I imagine this is an interstate crime.

  31. So scary, Senator Brownsberger. You were brave to follow this deception that far! Have you thought about submitting this to the Boston Globe or to WBZ-TV? The latter covers scams targeting seniors from time to time, and to learn of this from someone of your standing might be a great public service. Thanks for sharing with us!

  32. I am AMAZED you had the courage to play along Will. As most says here, thank you.
    My solution. I don’t answer the phone period. If someone needs to reach me she/he will leave a voice mail. If the person is legit, there are other ways to reach me.
    Sometimes I type the number into google. Invariably it shows up as a robo-caller.
    Seems to be working; I now get about one scam call a month at the most.

  33. I try to keep them on the line for as long as I can by being busy but expressing my sincere concern and coming back to them occasionally until they get frustrated and hang up. I think the only joy to be had is in wasting as much of their time and as little of yours as possible.

  34. When you wrote “My account is here” I thought for a moment that you were alluding to your bank account, lol! But seriously, well-done for using up the time of those crooks. There are various ways to string them along for days by playing dumb/hard of hearing and deliberately “misunderstanding” the instructions they give you. Some YouTubers do that 24/7 and their exploits have become the stuff of legend. But not all of us have the leisure or the inclination to fight fire with fire like that. Good for you, their nefarious scheme was at least slowed down a bit by your delaying tactics. “Will Cunctator” shall be your nom de guerre in this ongoing struggle.

  35. I’m hyper aware of scams and rarely answer calls from a number I don’t recognize yet I almost got caught by a clever ruse: the caller said they were from Chase bank and calling about giving me a lower interest rate for my VISA, because I had a good payment history. It so happens I DO have a Chase Bank VISA, but suffice it to say this was a scam and good enough that I had given them my card # by the time a warning bell went off that it was a scam. I was able to avoid giving up ALL the info they would need to use my card and pretend I was not the actual card owner, but it was close. My initial suspicion led me to ask that they call be back. In all I got 3 calls from them, and caller ID showed that each was from a different phone number each with a different area code (all fake, no doubt). That confirmed it.

  36. Thank you, Senator, you always go the extra mile for your constituents. Think the Globe would run your account as a column?

  37. Wow! Thanks Will- you’ve got nerve to take it so far!

    It’s expensive to keep house phone as protection. But I’ve found that there are fewer of these idiots bothering me if I raise the receiver just enough to slam it down in their ear on the 1st or 2nd ring if I happen to be near the phone.

    As for cell phone problems, never ever answer an unknown number. Just wait for a vm, listen, block, then delete. They seem to soon lose interest.

    Thank you for being so thorough and sharing the information.

    Best to you for an otherwise good spring!
    Lizzie

  38. I am old and get threatening calls almost every day from scammers. There are those pretending to be my grandson in trouble; those pretending to be from Medicare, the IRS, or Social Security; those pretending to be from Microsoft; lately many claim that my Amazon account has been hacked. The facts that I don’t have a grandson or an Amazon account and that I believe that Microsoft, like the IRS, never calls customers help a bit.
    I am not surprised by all the comments from those who have given up answering their phones, as that is a tactic employed by my friends. An important reason that I do answer my phone is that sometimes a friend calls from an emergency room or hospital and would like someone to come there as soon as possible to help. Last year I was taken by ambulance to the hospital for what might have been a life-threatening illness but happily wasn’t. I spent the night worrying that they wouldn’t let me leave in the morning because they would require another adult to accompany me — and that I wouldn’t be able to get anyone to answer his or her phone.
    An important point of phones used to be that you could contact necessary people in an emergency. That’s seems increasingly lost. The difficulty of contacting friends to have a conversation during the pandemic has been a lesser-order annoyance. It can take days using email and messages left on answering machines to talk to anyone I want to talk to. (I don’t talk to the daily scammers.) The kind of cyber crime Will describes is, of course, worst for the people who are scammed, frightened, and lose money. Nevertheless, I think phone scams — and people’s understandable efforts to defend themselves from them — have had deleterious impacts on the quality of life.
    When I’ve occasionally reported one of the attempted elder scams to the Belmont police, they essentially say there is nothing they can do about it. Those of us who read the “Belmont Citizen” get some idea of what scams are current, but most people don’t read the local newspaper. I suggested that it would be a good idea for the police to put a notice about some of the worst ones in people’s electric bills, which people do look at. No results so far. I started trying to fill out one of the FCC forms, but it required a detailed log of calls which I didn’t want to take the time to compile.

  39. There are several technological solutions to verifying the legitimacy of calls, such as STIR and SHAKEN, that are supposed to be implemented “any day now”, (currently the deadline is June 31; I wouldn’t bet on it.) As far as I can tell, they have been in that state of constantly shifting dates for years if not decades. They are a way of digitally signing a call to ensure the caller ID is correct and legitimate. The schemes *should* work fairly well on cell phones, Internet calls (voice over IP) and for anyone connected to a digital central office, as they could block spoofed calls and certify the Caller ID displayed is legitimate. But the phone companies are dragging their feet, I suspect because they don’t want to pay to update the thousands of old mechanical switching central offices or pay to upgrade the software on the latest digital switches and are hoping they all just go away. The various state PUCs and the FCC could force their hands, but for the last four years, the feds and the Red States have totally resisted any sort of regulation. Maybe soon!

  40. Unbelievable story… Thanks for sharing!
    This can happen through text message as well. I got a sketchy one yesterday saying USPS couldn’t deliver a package and I needed to click a link to complete the delivery. I googled the phone number and it was a random person in Texas. I wish I had the exact script I could paste here, but when I “marked as spam” it removed the text so I can’t view it anymore. In any case, beware of that scam as well!

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