I’ve been reluctant to tell the story below: it’s too embarrassing, even for a blurter like me. However, I just read that one of the secondary dangers of being scammed is that the victim feels so much shame about falling for the con that they are unwilling to talk about it, leading to depression and PTSD. So spill I shall.

My con was not as impressive as the ones I’ve learned about online – the one where someone pretends to be in love with you, then takes all your money, or the one where a young Muslim man is convinced to masturbate on camera, then blackmailed, or the one where they convince you they’re from the IRS, then empty your bank account or even the one where they rent you an empty lot for your surprise party! No, mine was tame, lame, and full of holes every step of the way. I’m not sure who in their right mind would fall for it.

Maybe I wasn’t in my right mind. Two days before Thanksgiving, I received a text from my cousin telling me my aunt in Delaware had died. I’d knew my aunt had fallen ill the previous week, and planned to go up there, but was told to wait until she got out of the ICU. Now I would be going to her funeral. I didn’t have much time to process all this because I had to get to school and teach a class.

During the class, I looked at my laptop and noticed I had received this email.

Mind-boggling detail #1: I have gotten this exact same email before, furiously called my son Vince to ask why he bought Bang Bang 5000 without asking me and been relieved when he laughingly explained that it was a phishing scam. For some reason, that memory was not available to me at the time. If only I could call Customer Service for my brain, boy, would somebody get an earful. Instead, I immediately messaged Vince and his sister to see if either of them had made this unauthorized purchase. Since neither answered in the next five seconds, I clicked to cancel the transaction, and that took me here.

I filled out the forms until I got to the one that asked me for my credit card information. Then I balked. Was this some kind of phishing operation? (Indeed. Read about it here and here.)

Instead of breathing a sigh of relief and going on with my life, I was still concerned that I might have been falsely charged for Bang Bang 5000. So I ran back into the arms of the con artists of my own accord, falling for a second, completely different scam — unless there is a sort of Amazon of scams and it all issues from the same monolithic evil organization. And Donald Trump is CEO.

Instead of taking the logical step of checking my credit card statement to see if this charge had been posted, I decided to call Apple directly. By this time, my class was over, and I was walking to the parking garage, googling “call iTunes customer service” on the way. This phone number popped up: 800-880-9785. “Service department, may I help you?” said a voice with an Indian accent on a very staticky line.

(Note the somewhat generic greeting. I later found a report of a different scam, one that involves a phony debt reduction service, that uses this same number! Gotta give it to these scammers, they really think on their feet.)

I spent the next hour and a half, no lie, on a call with various technicians and supervisors, or maybe it was only one person pretending to be different people, who explained to me that hackers had been getting into my iTunes account for three months and had actually pilfered even more than I thought, a total of $259.95. To avoid further compromising my credit card, the only way to safely refund the money was for me to buy an iTunes card at a drugstore or gas station so they could refund the money to the card.

But why, I moaned. Why would Apple make me go through such an annoying procedure? I told them I had had a death in the family and it was not a good time for me to deal with this. The fellow I was speaking with sympathized with my troubles, laughed at my little jokes and reiterated how much Apple regretted the inconvenience. I actually burst into tears twice because I was getting so confused and upset. Still, he kept me on the hook, often by putting me on a long hold, which ironically made me more and more eager to get this over and done with. Though I had an uneasy feeling, I still believed I had called Apple – even when at one point I looked down and saw that the screen now showed a different number, one in Hackensack, New Jersey: 201-487-6000. Even when he told me that if the CVS employee asked me what the card was for, I should say “personal use,” because if I said it was for this security problem, there would be a 20 percent upcharge. Even when he said a technician would stay on the phone with me while I drove to CVS. No, I was grateful for this level of service.

After I had scratched off the iTunes card (they had to explain how because I had never bought one before), he had me stay on the line and give them all the information about the CVS where I had purchased the card. Then he tried to convince me to go back to the store and get another card so that he could refund my full $259.95. At this point, something shifted in my head. I asked him to email me so I could have some record of the transaction so far. He said they didn’t have that capability, though they would email me in about an hour when my refund was complete.

Meanwhile, if I needed to reach him directly, I should write this down: Peter Johnson, x 1008, Billing. Peter said I could call him back anytime. (Right, either him or his co-worker, Dick Pecker.)

As soon as the call was over, I checked my credit card statement online, and of course, all I found was a charge from CVS for $100. I immediately called Apple, the real Apple this time, told them what happened, and tried to block the card… but they said too late, already redeemed. They suggested I call my credit card company, who told me I could dispute the charge when it came through. That didn’t make sense to me. CVS didn’t do anything wrong.

The funny thing is, I called the 800 number again later in the evening, and they answered! I asked the latest support representative why they would do this such a mean thing to me. He heard me out (probably trying to figure out if there was a new opportunity for scamming) then explained angrily that the iTunes card was a gift card, and that I had given them a gift.

This time when he put me on hold, I hung up.

I’m lucky they only got $100, I’m lucky they didn’t get any banking information out of me, I’m lucky they didn’t ask me to sign over the deed to my house – these dudes had me in the palm of their hand. And honestly, I didn’t feel all that lucky. I spent the next 24 hours alternating between feeling terrible about the scam, then remembering that my aunt had died, and thinking what a craven creep I was for obsessing about the wrong thing.

That night my friend Doug brought over a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and some take-out Thai food, and the next day I had to focus on cooking for Thanksgiving, and then it actually was Thanksgiving. And of course, I had a lot to give thanks for.

In thinking it over, I don’t doubt that I was a little off-balance because of the bad news about my aunt. But an equally contributing factor is that I was moving too fast, so eager to get done with this and on to the next thing. Rushing is responsible for the lion’s share of the misfortune I bring down on my own head. Reserving rental cars for the wrong month. Ordering lampshades the wrong size. Sending off emails full of typos. All kinds of mishaps involving locomotion, both on foot and by automobile. I know I’m not the only one having this problem, but I have it bad.

It’s my brain, I tell you. This thing has never worked perfectly. Something is wrong with the speed settings, now the logic board is going bad, and I can see why they don’t offer an extended warranty. If you find a number for customer service, let me know.

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

10 replies on “Hook, Line, and Sinker: How the Phishermen Reeled Me In”

  1. One of the many galling characteristics of scammers is their snotty anger at you when you’re not following their scam directions , their rolling their eyes at you (unseen but obvious) when you question the “protocol”.

  2. Oh, Marion. Let’s try slowing down together. Love this piece! (Peter Johnson — did he *really* use that name?!)

  3. Thanks for sharing, and I admire your guts! It takes a brave woman to shine their own spotlight on something so “embarrassing,” and you’ve hopefully helped a lot of people.
    And I suspect like almost all women, the “disease to please” was kicking in: you were so grateful for the “support” you were getting from that DICK that your red flags weren’t set for “SCAM!”
    Kudos to you-doze!

  4. Nasty! Hate those people! But funny, when YOU write it!

    At least you didn’t give $12.000 to the handsome well-dressed guys at the door who promised to fix an “illegal crack” in your driveway, like my mom did.

    (Sorry about your aunt.)

  5. I am hoping, after reading the entertaining horrors you’re written for us, that you didn’t plug in your Apple ID and password into that web page which you followed from the email link. Or if you did then you’ve changed that ID password since then. Phishing is evil. What cheek that last fellow had, to tell you that you’d bought them a gift. I guess you gave them a gift again, by publishing their phony baloney 800 number. Thanks for the story, marvelous as always.

  6. Ohmygosh!!!! Thank you for posting this! I’d completely fall for this scam. It’s hard to think that people can be so shifty and grimy when other people can make you feel supported and happy. I loved this column, spilled from your gut, always humorous, you’re definitely helping others… and Marion, are you working out? Because you look amazing!!

  7. There are so many scams for; getting rich, Skin care, credit counseling, IRS scares, quick erections, reverse mortgages, and auto warranties.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I get a few calls a day. I even told the auto warranty people, that I wrecked the Prius, they still kept calling. My phone now lights up scam alert for many numbers.

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