I have spent my entire adult life on the internet. I used to work as a social media manager for the New York State Legislature and put food on my table because of my internet prowess. That didn’t stop me from looking like a fool this afternoon at a local Walgreens buying gift cards for a stranger.
It all started with an email this afternoon from someone pretending to be the owner of the public relations firm I work for in real life. Saying virtually, “Hey, I need to talk to you about something quickly could you text me your number?” Pretty normal stuff. You would imagine your boss sending an email like this. The email had my boss’s name and his actual email signature. All seemed on the up and up.
The next interaction was a text message. “Hey, I’m on a conference call, could you pick up a couple gift cards for our clients?” Sure. Right, this is a thing that agencies do. It’ll take me like 15 minutes to get to Walgreens and buy the cards. I’m the only employee outside of the firm’s home state and office. I’m just floating around in the wind. So when the request came to just send the codes so that he can forward them to the client, that didn’t seem weird either.
Once I sent over the codes, I got another request. Instead of the $500 in Google Play Store credits, could you pick up a couple eBay cards as well. We’re a big firm and these are big clients. I get reimbursements for purchases for work, so what’s another $600 in cards.
Luckily, Walgreens has a $750 limit on gift cards. So I couldn’t make an even more horrific decision in purchasing more gift cards for my fake boss. I tell the person that it’ll be another ten or so minutes before I can go to the next Walgreens and finish the purchase. I’m a naturally anxious person. I had been going to therapy every single week of the last year, before switching insurances and going to twice a month. I am especially anxious over financial things, even with the reimbursements. Last year, I paid off $13,000 in credit card debt because of my inability to tell my friends or loved ones that I can’t afford to do something.
I am in line at the next Walgreens freaking out over spending $1,100 in one day. In one hour. I start to get those weird texts from the scammer like when one of those poorly constructed emails makes it through the spam filter. “Why long silence?” “Are store yet?” Then I freak out. Damn it.
I go to my Microsoft Outlook work email and click on the email from the owner. It’s a gmail account that you can’t see unless you click on the name and it drops down to reveal the actually address. Oh no. I text the scammer. “You got me. You scammed me, you jerk.” The response is curt, like I insulted my actual boss.
“That’s my personal email, M3. Get the gift cards and send me the codes, NOW.”
Oh no oh no oh no oh no. I am SPIRALING. I’m pacing around Walgreens wondering what I should do. I call my supervisor. “What’s the big boss’s personal email?” Oh, they’ve seen this before. She talks me off a ledge. I block the phone number. I get out of line at Walgreens. I leave. I sit out in the car. A 31-year-old man on the verge of tears because I am so anxious. I am so spun up. I feel like a fool. Like a sucker. And all of this in front of my supervisors at a job I’ve only been at for six or so months.
I call my agency’s IT. I call AT&T. I call the bank. Apparently, they ask for gift cards because they can’t be returned and they certainly can’t give you your money back at the bank because you technically were willingly spending your money. The bank did give me a form to report cyber crime to the FBI though. Apparently, people who get scammed are so embarrassed that they don’t report the actual crime to the people who can help. Your local police are limited in their response, but the FBI has a whole division set up for this. I passed along the email address and phone number to the authorities. All I can do now.
Now, my agency is reimbursing me the cost of the gift cards because they’re good people. I’m still embarrassed. I needed a couple of Tylenol PM to calm down and go to sleep. I got pizza from DeFazio’s in Troy, New York because it was a Lenten Friday and it’s a right of passage for the Capital Region.
I hope me sharing this story helps you avoid getting scammed as a young person (who may also be riddled with anxiety). If you do get caught up, report your crime. For now, I will be eating leftover pizza and feeling sad for myself for a couple days.