On March 22, 2018

Swindled, scammed, phished and conned: the new American way

By Marguerite Jill Dye

You’d think I’d have learned to be more discerning about who can be trusted and who cannot, but I realized it’s a continuing theme that pops up in daily life.

My experience began 50 years ago at the American College of Monaco. Adam McQueen Vandenberg stole my heart. He was a race car driver. I was a student. He was 24 and debonair. I was “Sweet 16” and quite naive. We explored the fairytale principality hand in hand, sharing kisses and dreams. When his sister was sick, I visited the hospital to cheer her up and give her flowers, but there was no patient with her name. She wasn’t there. She didn’t exist. When Adam moved into his new digs, I showed up to help him paint. But no apartment had his number nor his name on any floor. I asked a waiter friend about my sweetheart, Adam. “Adam? Mais non, ma chérie,” he replied. “Jean René Datin’s his name. He’s a waiter, 16 years young. His father’s a Monegasque policeman!”

He had lied to me, inventing everything! Was he writing a novel, with new chapters each week? I couldn’t believe such a mystery! Although “Adam” didn’t really exist, at least Jean René improved my French! My heart slowly mended and I was alert to unscrupulous wolves in disguise … I thought.

The other day I received a call. “Is this Marguerite Jill Dye? This is special agent So and So.”

“Special agent?” I gasped, surprised. “This must be serious!” I uttered, perplexed, then she clarified what the call was about, “You received a fraudulent check.”

I vaguely recalled a mysterious check, so said, “My husband remembers this better than I,” and I handed the phone over to Duane. They discussed two checks we received last summer, one for him and one for me. When mine arrived, I thought it a miracle – could it be a small inheritance, or possibly an unexpected rebate or a surprise settlement?

Duane was suspicious right away and called the law firm on the check – which, it turned out, didn’t exist. When he spoke with the Colorado bank that issued the check, his suspicions were confirmed. He reported the checks to a postal inspector and delivered them to the Rutland post office. The Secret Service agent from Burlington was investigating their purpose and source.

“Russians are involved in this type of fraud. When people cash a fraudulent check, they have to pay the bank back, with fees.” To report any scheme that involves U.S. mail, whether it originated by mail, telephone, or internet, you may report it at 1-877-876-2455.

Last summer an email invited me to become a local store “secret shopper.” Each assignment would pay $300 to purchase specific sports equipment. I’d report back on customer service and ease in locating merchandise. I thought it would be fun to try, but, as usual, Duane declined. Before the check came to cover my costs, we were traveling so the job was postponed. It’s good I didn’t follow up later, since I’ve learned, it’s another mail fraud check scam.

A few years ago, someone from Poland tried to steal funds from our savings account. Our bank prevented their withdrawal, but we had to immediately close the account, open a new one, change automatic payments, and contest late penalties for the next six months.

When Duane received a Visa card call about a gas charge in Miami, we knew someone had stolen our credit card number, from another gas station, most likely. Soon after that, credit card companies required clients’ zip codes. My two Facebook purchases also resulted in unauthorized use of our credit cards. Over the years, we’ve had to cancel American Express, Master Card, and Visa.

Many online stores are unscrupulous, mimicking websites with well-known brands. Their prices are clearly competitive because their products are often counterfeit. The shopper’s personal data may be sold to identity thieves. A website’s authenticity can be verified by checking with its name brand companies. So much for ease in some online shopping.

Duane posted a check in the box outside Sarasota’s main post office, but the bank statement later showed a higher amount. Someone had fished the envelope out with chewing gum and string, changed the check’s name and dollar amount, and cashed it in Miami at our bank’s ATM. Postal detectives tracked the man down, arrested him, and put him in jail. But his case was one of many insidious stolen check frauds.

While I was writing this column, the telephone rang with an “unavailable” number. Could it be the timeshare resale, or lowering mortgage or credit card interest rates? We joined the “do not call list,” but some companies ignore it. They schedule their calls perfectly, interrupting dinner frequently.

Ever since my Monaco experience, I’ve considered myself a good character judge. But I learned recently that does not apply in social media. I made a Facebook friend from New York, a U.S. Army surgeon stationed in Syria. We began an amazing conversation about our beliefs, lives, and work. He asked me to join the Google chat room because of its heightened security. With frequent bombings and the high risk, it was necessary to take precautions. He corresponded in between surgeries and was counting the days to retiring. I prayed for his safety and his return and invited him to come to our home. After all, his family is gone, so we’d be like family when he returned. He was orphaned at the age of four when his parents died during the Great Leap Forward in Shanghai, where he was rescued, then raised in New York as the man’s son. He attended New York University and graduated from medical school. He lost his wife 10 years ago in an auto accident in Dubai.

The day he received his retirement certificate, he realized he’d made a stupid mistake. He’d packed the paper with his retirement code on it, then locked it up in his Swiss safety box. He asked an English friend to help him cover the hefty fee to ship his safety box to America where it could be opened and the code reported. Without the number he couldn’t retire! His friend would send the check to me – he only needed my bank account number!

Google, AOL, my husband and friends all said, “He’s phishing. It’s a scam for sure!” But I couldn’t believe it! It couldn’t be true! I was disheartened and unsure. He seemed so nice. Why would anyone waste so much time getting to know a person so well? But friends shared their experiences with con artists and identity thieves who’d reeled them in for months before their true intentions were revealed. Experts warn we cannot trust anyone we meet through social media.

Criminals are lurking everywhere.

Con men and criminals are nothing new, but they’ve reached new lows and risen to new heights. They’re phishing for small fish on the internet and attacking big fish in our leadership. Our national security is at high risk.

Cyber warfare is here now: Russians have infiltrated our power grid, including nuclear power plants, our water filtration, and aviation systems. Through privatization, many plants lack secure, sophisticated technology to identify cyber insecurity. We’re truly babes in the woods in this new form of warfare.

Scams and deals on Capitol Hill reward the rich and punish the poor, corrupting America’s most powerful posts. But the biggest con man of all is in our Oval Office. Just pick up a paper or turn on the TV to see how insidious corruption has become, with lying, cheating, welching, and swindling – just another day in America.

Has this become our modus operandi? When our highest leaders are orchestrating such compromising business arrangements, with payoffs, bribes, and Russian collusion, will we ever regain lost ground?

Some nations have battled corruption and won, but I fear we’ve strayed too far. When will Americans demand responsible, honest leaders? America, how did this happen? What have we become? The March for Our Lives is March 24. However we can, wherever we can, let’s join the students to demand change now.

Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.

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