I Got Scammed Over the Phone — And So Could You

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“The man on the phone had told me not to tell anyone what I was doing.”

In March 2022, I returned from a vacation that had unexpectedly turned very stressful. Having had two severe depressive episodes in my life, I knew the signs I was about to go down the deep, dark emotional tunnel: the shakiness, the feelings of isolation, the not-quite-functioning in the world. So when I started to feel the onset of that black hole, I recognized it immediately. I also knew I needed to find some therapy once I returned home. But given the mental-health crisis plaguing the U.S., I knew I might have to wait weeks — or even months — to see someone. 

When I got home I was going through my business junk email when I came across one message that stopped me in my tracks. It was from Amazon, and stated that I — or someone using my  information — had bought a laptop for close to $900. It instructed me that if I hadn’t placed the order, I should call the Amazon Fraud Department, and listed a number. In my vulnerable state, I panicked and called right away. The man on the other end, who identified himself as “Peter,” had a heavy accent and assured me he’d help. He told me he was with the “card section” of Amazon security, and that he’d secure my cards and identity. He knew details about me, like the last four numbers of three of my debit cards and even the names of two of my nieces. 

Peter advised me to go to an app called Anydesk to secure my cards. When, as he told me, that “didn’t work,” he told me to unplug my router and turn off my computer. Finally, he instructed me to go to a Target or Safeway to obtain “Security Store License Keys.” I had no idea what that meant, but I followed his instructions anyway. 

Peter said he’d stay on the line with me the whole time and that I should talk to no one about what was happening. At Target, I bought $600 of Google Play gift cards without a hitch. At that point, as instructed, I scratched the security bar off the gift cards while sitting in my car, took photos of the numbers, and sent him the photos. He kept saying he’d secure my cards, reassuring me, “You’ll never have to go through this again.” But I’d forgotten a different card I needed at home. Peter waited on the line while I drove back home to get it, then told me I’d have to drive to another store. 

My husband was in the driveway when I returned home. He saw how distraught I was and tried to ask me what was going on. I said “I can’t talk right now, someone may have stolen my identity — I have to get back to Target.” He urged me not to drive, saying we’d work it out together. I looked at him and said, as if in a trance, “I have to go, I can’t talk to you now.” After all, Peter had told me not to tell anyone what I was doing. Then I went to buy more gift cards, as he’d instructed. 

He told me about other people who’d had all their savings taken. I replied, “How do these scammers sleep at night?” 

My husband called Amazon and found out that I’d more than likely been scammed. He tried to text and call me numerous times, but I didn’t pick up — Peter had told me to stay on the line. My husband was so worried that he left a message saying he was going to call the police if he didn’t hear from me, and to please come home. He even drove by the hospital to see if he could find my car. 

Meanwhile, I was on the way to the Safeway customer service department, where I tried to buy $1000 in gift cards with my business debit card. It was the end of the day and I was in such a state of exhaustion, I couldn’t remember my card’s pin. I left the store and told Peter I was exhausted; I couldn’t do this anymore. But he told me I was “so close” to being finished. Believe it or not, I even told him I’d call him back in the morning to continue the process. But before we hung up, I looked at my main debit card balance. It was negative. I freaked out at Peter, but he assured me it would all be returned overnight by 10pm. I had nothing to worry about.  

All in all, I had spent 6 hours doing what Peter said. It felt to me like we’d established trust, even a friendship of sorts. At one point, he told me about other people who’d had all their savings taken. I replied, “How do these scammers sleep at night?” 

That night, shaken, I finally looked at my bank balance. I was in the red. I still halfway believed the money would be back in my account by 10pm, just like Peter said. But my husband finally convinced me that Amazon showed no purchases on my account. I called my bank’s fraud department and described what had happened — their rep said phone scams were very common, and a pit formed in my stomach. That night, I looked more closely at the original email from Amazon. It became crystal clear: I’d been scammed. 

That evening, we called my bank’s fraud department and canceled our affected debit cards. At that point, I learned I’d lost $1100. Yes, it could have been so much worse. I was told I probably wouldn’t get it back, since I knowingly used my debit cards for the gift cards I authorized. We also canceled our debit cards. 

But more disappointing than losing the money was losing my trust in myself — and in the human race. For days, I asked myself, How could I be so stupid? I’ve never been clinically diagnosed with PTSD, but I can say that it took me days to get back in my car — the place where I’d driven around to get all the gift cards. I’m a very independent woman, but the first time I went to Target again, I asked my husband to go in with me. My experience and the resulting shame were so raw and unnerving, and the trauma has stuck around. 

In this Covid era, people are more isolated and vulnerable than ever. Scams like the one I experienced won’t be ending any time soon, and if anything, they’ll probably worsen in the future. Rereading the original email I received, it clearly hadn’t come from Amazon. The email was unprofessional, grammatically incorrect, and just didn’t look right. Checking for details like this might save not only your money, but lots of emotional agony. If I can provide awareness and help prevent even a few people from falling prey like I did, I’ll be more at peace. 

​​I’m a certified life coach, meaning I have lots of self-care tools at my disposal. But when I was suffering during my depressive episode, I was paralyzed. That’s what led me to be more susceptible to being scammed. Luckily, I have a compassionate partner who didn’t blame or chastise me for what happened next. 

For those of you who are living alone, struggling with depression and waiting for professional help, know this: You’re especially vulnerable to scammers and other predators. If you receive a questionable email or phone call, before you act, take a breath. Then show the email to a trusted friend or organization. Then take their word for it. And just remember, you are not alone.  

Suzie Alexander is a Professionally Certified Life Coach. Her focus is on providing self-care tools  for stress release, life/work balance and optimal happiness and wellness. She has been  published in the NAMI (National Association of Mental Health) newsletter.