23£, GOOGLE, 25-03-2020 03:52:45. Declined.
Reply Y if you made this transaction. If you do not recognise it, please reply N.
Imagine you got this message as a wakeup text from your bank. How would you feel about it?
I know, that is how I felt about it too.
One untainted Wednesday morning, I opened my eyes, reached for my phone’s charging cable, pulled the cable, grabbed my hone, and unlocked the screen to check my notifications like I would do every morning. I saw that my bank had texted me. I opened my messages, still cuddled into sleepy tranquillity. But all my tiredness suddenly wore off as a notification about suspicious money transactions struck me like high voltage. My mind was instantaneously sharpened.
I replied “N” to the text. No five minutes later, my bank called me. They notified me that my credit card had been hacked. I was further advised that the bank had locked my debit card for security reasons, meaning that I would receive a new card within the next few days. Of course, it was not the most convenient idea to be stripped off my bank card while a global pandemic disrupted normal life (and demanded contactless payment). However, I happily accepted this inconvenience as long as my money stayed safe.
I spent the rest of my morning contemplating the possible source of this security breach. In my mind, I replayed my entire week, filtering out all money-related actions. At first, I suspected that my card details had been stolen through the Uber app, on which I had recently registered as a new customer. But then I recalled an in-hindsight-absolutely-fishy email from PayPal. This fraudulent PayPal email had featured all stereotypical indicators of a scam: a dodgy link, an intimidating threat that scares you into obeying, and, most importantly, a request to openly disclose your sensitive bank details as if it was your casual Sunday morning shower. When I tell the story now, this scam scheme seems too obvious, rendering me stupid and silly. I cannot believe I seriously fell for it. Usually, I can detect scams very reliably, yet, I did not catch this one. I blame my gullible carelessness on inattention and drowsiness.
Until my new credit card arrived, I depended on my flatmate for providing me with pocket money. It worked out really well and my new credit card arrived in the post much earlier than I had expected. Everything seemed fine again.
A week later, while I was comfortably reading in my bed, a call from an anonymous number disrupted my peace. I picked up. A man spoke:
“Here is Royal Bank of Scotland and we are calling to inform you that someone has hacked your mobile app. Somebody from Scotland, Aberdeen has accessed your account via the mobile app, and has tried to move money from your account. We have temporarily suspended all suspicious activity from Aberdeen because we wanted to consult you first in this regard. Could you confirm if you, or a family member, has carried out these transactions from Aberdeen?”
My jaw dropped to the floor and my heart fell even farther down. All my inner alarm bells rang, signalling emergency. Only a week after the theft of my card details, I was confronted with yet another attempted theft – this time much bigger and more dangerous though.
With courtesy and patience, the bank man on the phone walked me through the steps I had to take to secure my account. Apparently, it was necessary to close my old bank account due to security reasons. He explained that he would therefore set up a new bank account for me to which all my money had to be moved to.
To complete this process, the bank man needed to verify my identity via various security questions. Among others, he wanted me to confirm certain digits of both the pin as well as the password to my digital banking. I failed at providing the correct password since I never log into my digital banking (I only ever use my mobile app really). Luckily, the bank man reassured me that this was no problem; it just meant that I could not transfer all my funds from my original account to the new account in one go. As an alternative, the bank man instructed me to transfer my money via the mobile app instead (in contrast to digital banking, a daily maximum of 1000£ applies to transfers through the mobile app which is why I could not transfer my money all at once).
After forty-five intense minutes on the phone with this bank man, I had wired the first thousand pounds from my original to my new bank account.
“I will assist you with moving the next 1000£ to your new account tomorrow, Madam. I will directly call you back. We do not want you to be waiting on the phone line, especially since waiting times are around one to two hours at the moment due to the ongoing pandemic.”
I genuinely appreciated his effort and felt it was really nice of him to offer a callback.
The next day I was so eager to get my bank stuff sorted that I decided to take care of the next 1000£-transaction sooner rather than later. I accessed my banking app, where I repeated yesterday’s steps, starting with the transfer of 1000£ from my savings to my select account. However, this transaction failed. While the balance of my savings account indicated that my savings had shrunk by a thousand bucks, the balance on my select account appeared unchanged. One thousand pounds – the equivalent of one month’s salary – had just vanished into thin air. Frantically, I pulled up the digital banking on my laptop, hoping the missing 1000£ would correctly show up there. But in the rush of the moment I entered my login details wrong (again), which resulted in my digital banking access getting locked for good.
I hated how every step in this fraud case created new problems and worries for me. I sat down onto my living room floor. I ruminated about this humongous and intricate fraud case, trying to comprehend what had happened in the last twenty-four hours alone. All of a sudden, I could feel panic bubbling up in my chest. My mind ran amok, cutting off all anchors of sanity. I began to no longer believe in anything, and, instead, question everything. It was one particularly worry that wrecked me the hardest: ‘What if the bank man who called yesterday had been a scammer too?’
My worries escalated into trembling panic. While my body seemed frozen from the outside, it heatedly raced on the inside. Being stunned, I stared onto the ground. I felt helpless, lost, and unable to think or act. This was a panic attack, and I knew it was.
Fortunately, my flatmate came to help me. Without hesitation, I revealed the grim state of my insides to her. I was grateful to have somebody I could pour out my fears to so openly. When I told my flatmate that I even doubted yesterday’s call from my bank, she asked: “Have you tried calling the number from him back yet to see if he is legit?” – I had not, in fact.
It is terrifying to see how much anxiety and panic can clog your brain, clouding your senses. In my case, panic had blanked my senses so much that it had not occurred to me at all to simply call the bank man’s number back.
Dialling his number, directed me to the official telephone line of my bank. I sighed with relief, smiling shyly at my flatmate. “See, everything is fine”, she encouraged me.
Later that day, the same bank man, who I had doubted only hours earlier, checked up on me via phone as he had promised. I confided my worries about the vanished 1000£ to him. I also asked him to enable the access to my digital banking again. He, being the charming banking adviser that he was, told me not to worry about my missing money as it would show up soon. Yet, he could not enable my access to the digital banking again and claimed I had to contact a different department of the bank regarding this issue:
“Contact the responsible department to unlock the access to your digital banking number. Their number is […]. Also, ask them to empty your old bank account by transferring all funds to your new account. However, do not tell them about what happened. If you mention my name, the department will just forward you to me again, causing you longer waiting times than necessary. I know it is in your interest to solve this issue as quickly as possible. Therefore, please also tell the other department that moving all your funds to this new account is intended as an emergency deposit for a family member.”
The bank man even rehearsed with me what I ought to tell the other bank department. He forced me to repeat his words as if I was a child that you insistently try to teach the word ‘mommy’.
I hung up on him, feeling tired, confused, and frustrated. I was angry about how complicated this whole process turned out to be. I just wanted an end to this drama. Most importantly, I wanted the never-resting fear about my money to stop. Achieving the contrary though, the last words of the bank man, especially his authoritarian rehearsal, echoed in my spine, feeding into my fears more. I felt as if the bank man had actually tried to brainwash me, convincing me to lie and withhold crucial information about my fraud case when speaking to another agent of the bank.
I pulled myself together the next morning to finally clear this whole mess up. I contacted the fraud department of my bank via their official phone number.
The story ends here with a massive plot twist. Speaking to the official fraud department of my bank confirmed my initial instincts. The all-so-charming bank man turned out to be a parasitic scammer, who had impersonated a bank agent on the phone.
The scammer had pulled off a truly cunning and insidious scam, I give him that. His charm and excellent soft skills (or rather, his eloquent, manipulative suggestions) had lulled me into unconditional trust. He had further pushed his credibility by using a phone number which linked back to the official phone line of the bank. Moreover, he had been able to create a new account under my very own name – the reason why I believed his entire set-up, freely transferring my money to ‘my’, but, in truth, his account.
After the big revelation, the scammer tried calling me again – multiple times, in fact. However, I felt too disgusted to pick up the phone and exchange a single word with him. Seeing his number on my phone display, triggered me too much already, reflecting how much his scam had really affected me. The scammer had abused my trust while I had been in a most vulnerable position, and, as a result, it had left me feeling naked. After learning about the full extent of his scam, I felt ashamed for my naivety. A part of me felt guilty too. I was too embarrassed to tell anybody about this incidence until I realised that I, the victim, am not the one supposed to feel this way. It is him, the offender, who should be teared apart by his conscience.
It is beyond my grasp how ruthless a person can be. Would the mind of a normal person not rip from the remorse that lingers on your soul? I guess I will never be able to relate to the mind of somebody who is capable of such utmost convincing false pretences.
The thing is that I fell for this scam despite being a young, middle class, educated adult. I hate to imagine how scammers have an even easier and more successful game with people that are more vulnerable than I am due to older age, or a minority background, for example. My story demonstrates that nobody has bullet-proof protection against scams and abuse. I take this whole experience as a lesson for life – one in which I thankfully got off lightly. The scam was officially reported and all my money was returned. I was very lucky that my own forgetfulness had actually saved me in the end because disabling my access to the digital banking had also prevented the scammer from logging into my account and stealing more money.
I have certainly learnt from my mistakes, and I hope that my story may help you to be more wary of scammers too.
Edit 22-04-20: I was called today from Crime Victim Support. Apparently, they had received my details through the report that I had made about my scam. They called to check up on me, enquiring whether I was doing well or needing any support. I found it extremely thoughtful and sweet of them to offer their services.
Also, I came across a Youtube channel where scammers are tracked down and the grand scheme behind them is revealed. It is worth a watch, especially to raise awareness about scammers and their operations. It can help you to protect yourself better, so give it a watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5X9ZSXb7xI