This snow day I got snowed. In re-telling this scam I am embarrassed. I pride myself on being diligent and hard to spoof, but I fell for it. The ruse was a good one; you might’ve been taken in, too. Could happen to anyone. I don’t want the next victim to be you, so consider this a public service announcement, of sorts.
Here’s what happened. A man called me on my cell phone at 10 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 29. No caller ID but I answered anyway. This serious-sounding man identified himself with law enforcement, asking for my full name, which I spelled out in part, so he could pull up my case file.
“The reason you’ve received a call from us is that we have noticed a suspicious trail of activity associated with your name and social security number,” he said. “Someone was running drugs and laundering money—in your name—across the border to and from El Paso, Texas.”
My personal data was found in two drug houses recently raided by the U.S. Marshals. I was given the exact street address of these drug houses where it all went down. I am writing notes all this time, fast, just to keep up.
The man on the line said he was Bryan Cooper, badge number 02840175, and that my case number was DMC701089. He repeated those numbers and letters, so I could write them down. I’m telling you the exact numbers, because I’ve since found stories online of the same numbers used by scammers posing as either the Social Security Administration or from law enforcement.
Imagine me, a pastor in this community, working with drug cartels down there on the border! It’s ludicrous on its face, but to clear my name I pumped them for information, too. His questions were meant to get to the bottom of this and help me protect my private information—while at the same time collecting some of it for himself! I protested, stating the obvious and making a case for stolen identity and asking my own questions. He redirected me to his senior agent or supervisor, Eric Foster, who also called me back to check on me. The two just wanted my confirming info to help me clear my name, as it were. They pressed me for whom I knew in El Paso, and if I had any enemies who would want to frame me for this. He gently reminded me of the bench warrant for my arrest and offered to have two uniformed officers visit me the next day. They would not be singing “Happy Birthday.”
At this point I was in full panic mode, as I’ve never received such a call or been accused of such things. It all sounded so real. The officer sounded authoritative, insistent, reassuring and trustworthy. I respect such people. The “stolen identity” part I believed, as I was half-expecting such a call. My personal data had been stolen a few months prior through a breach in the Starwood Guest Reservation Database of some 500 million guests, including duplicates. Marriott Hotels reported this to me Dec. 12, but I figured some thief might take me to the cleaners sometime. Now, here I am the one being accused of laundering money. And I am facilitating the perps.
I figured in the moment, if I cooperated with certain info, this fraud attempt would not succeed and instead could provide exculpatory evidence for me. Yet the very one holding himself out as a helper was defrauding me as I reciprocated. Just like the “National Help Desk” guy who plants a virus on your computer, then extorts money from you to repair your PC remotely. I fell for that once, but I thwarted two later attempts, and won a class-action lawsuit again NHD. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Only later—after I called my banks, my credit card company, my brother Bill, and the Madison police—would I find out this call was all a fraud attempt by a thief impersonating a federal law officer, another crime. From the Madison police and my online research, I learned of similar scams. I know not to give out my SSN just because they ask; give it only when required. I contact my credit report every 12 months, and every week or two my account balances for any irregularities. I know not to give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless I have initiated the contact, or I know for sure who I am dealing with.
But this ruse felt different. I wanted to clear my name, he had me hooked, in full panic. Writing this piece helps. Hope it helps you. That’d be one good thing coming out of this scary ordeal.
Rev. Dietrich Gruen, from Madison, is Bridge Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus.