I admit it. I got scammed, and it nearly cost me my life savings.
When I look back at it, I’m aghast I fell for it. Yet I don’t feel stupid or ashamed. Rather, I feel intense anger at cretinous creatures that nefariously engage in bilking people out of their honestly earned life savings. I’ve dubbed and henceforth shall refer to them as Malwarians.
It began when researching information for a piece I was composing. Just as I clicked on what I had thought was a safe site, a red screen took over my monitor. It read something to the effect that my computer had been infected and was locked. I couldn’t manipulate the cursor with my mouse. I was at a loss about what to do and began to panic. But the message also read to call a certain toll-free number for Microsoft.
The Malwarian that took the call sounded professional and empathetic. It said Microsoft was seeing a rash of hacking and that it would call me back on a “secure line.” I got a call from a number with an area code that indicated it was close to MS corporate headquarters. (I learned later that scammers can use bogus numbers to conceal their real location. Seriously, phone companies?) The Malwarian convinced me that they were a MS representative. I allowed them to access my computer to trace the source of the infection and with that, I descended into tech hell.
The next morning, the Malwarian called and said they had detected something disconcerting. They said they had tracked three sales transactions from Russia charged to one of my accounts. My panic heightened, but the Malwarian assured me that they would get me in contact with a fraud specialist from the institution, and with that I entered a deeper cavern of tech hell.
I’ll skip over the murky details from that point forward, but it suffices to say the Malwarians really got into my head. I cannot overstate how malevolently adept they are at their dastardly machinations. They’re well trained in human psychology, and quite effective at playing good cop, bad cop. I trusted them similar to how in the Stockholm Syndrome a victim trusts the person who took them prisoner. But still, it took the right set of circumstances for their tactics to work, and their ploy coincided with a time when I was emotionally depleted.
I’m sure many can identify with the year-from-hell description for a grueling stretch in their lives. The first six and a half months of 2023 was mine. By mid-July, I’d morphed into an emotional zombie. I became fatalistic, convinced another painful event was around the corner. “What’s next?” became my mantra. Rationally, I was functional, but my natural guards had atrophied.
In the end, two interventions saved me: my bank and a friend to whom I finally opened up. My bank intervened not once but twice when I attempted to wire large amounts of money to a fraudulent account. The first time, their fraud specialists canceled the transaction outright, and the second time they put it on hold. When I spoke with them, they made it clear: Once the funds were sent, they couldn’t be recouped. That second intervention gave me a reprieve. Slowly I began coming to my senses.
My friend’s immediate response after hearing and seeing what was happening was “shut it down,” meaning my computer. I called LifeLock, and from another computer I logged onto the three credit agencies and froze my accounts. I then changed passwords and set up two-step verification wherever I could. The next morning, I drove to my financial institutions, closed my accounts, and opened new ones. Finally, I took my computer to the Geek Squad to have it scrubbed. They found a virus despite the anti-virus protection I paid for.
On the heels of my travails was a news report of multiple seniors in Douglas County who were similarly accosted. Two differences between their experiences and mine were that theirs were local and in person — Malwarians actually went to their houses — and sadly they lost huge amounts of money.
I’m no expert on fraud prevention, but I am about knowing what it’s like to be a victim. It’s a most unpleasant feeling, but it was one from which I learned a few hard lessons. Given that, allow me to suggest a baker’s dozen of to-do’s and not-to-do’s.
If you haven’t yet, freeze your credit reports with all three agencies.
If not a member of LifeLock, seriously consider becoming one.
Have a discussion with your banker and other financial institutions about their fraud protocols.
If you haven’t had your computer scanned recently for viruses and other forms of malware, get it done.
Activate two-step verification for all of your accounts including email logins.
Become more educated about the ever-evolving and increasingly sophisticated tactics of Malwarians.
In the event of an attack:
Skip the usual shutdown process and immediately power your computer down.
Contact your computer pro and your financial institutions ASAP.
File a report with the FBI on their Internet Crime Complaint Center site: https://www.ic3.gov/
Call a number provided to you, even if in the guise of an 800-type.
Click on a link unless you’re absolutely sure it’s safe.
Download a document that you’re not absolutely sure about.
Allow any unknown party access to your computer.
Further, if you’ve been or become a victim, don’t feel ashamed. Talk about it. Speak out as I am. As friends and family can attest to, I’m a hard-nosed skeptic when interacting with unknowns. Yet I bit. But I’ve discovered that others far more tech-savvy than me have likewise fallen victim. We’re far from alone.
Sadly, a brutal reality of this super-tech age is that scammers are not necessarily hustling you upfront. They’re lurking in the cesspools of the Dark Web waiting to slither into and infect your tech body. And they’re spawning.
Consider all the personal stuff you store on and use your computer for. With that in mind, think of it as an extension of yourself, your personal AI—artificial intelligence—space, and then take every precaution to protect it as you do yourself. Remain vigilant, not only during your forays into cyber space but also of yourself: your moods, temperaments, and states of mind, especially when you become worn down. Just because you might be functionally rational doesn’t mean you’re impervious to falling prey.
I’ve been not only acutely reminded about the risks of online research, I’m also keeping more attuned to my mental and emotional states. But I won’t let this interfere with what I love to do: writing.
Although this experience was most challenging, I continue to keep in the forefront of my mind the numerous caring and supportive professionals who helped me navigate the cleanup process. They’re a constant reminder that countering vile, viral cretins are many more wonderful human beings available to help and guide us when needed. For that and them, I’m grateful.
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.