At the direction of a fraudster, a woman in her 80s drove to four Lowe’s home improvement stores near her home in St. Louis where she snapped up 26 Target gift cards worth $500 a piece — and nothing else. In all, the twice-widowed woman spent $13,000, equal to almost seven months of her Social Security benefits. “It’s just the most horrible thing,” the first-time fraud victim says now.
Time-stamped receipts show the purchases occurred between 1:15 and 5 p.m. on Sept. 2. She drove 50 miles in all, so consumed by stress that she skipped lunch.
Alarm bells literally go off
Her ordeal began earlier that day when she logged onto her computer to research an anti-fungal cream. An alarm blared. “This screaming sound, screaming so loud it hurt your ears,” she remembers. “I couldn’t stand it. I thought, ‘What in God’s name is it?’ ”
The woman, interviewed by AARP, is not being named in this story.
The alarm sounded as a pop-up computer message kept flashing, urging her to contact Microsoft at 1-800-642-7676. That is, in fact, its customer service number, but cybercrooks spoof it and pretend it’s theirs, the tech giant says. The error and warning messages sent by Microsoft never include a phone number, so if you receive such an alert with a phone number, do not call it, Microsoft says. Here’s more of its guidance.
The woman phoned Microsoft — or so she thought — and a man who called himself Chris Wright gave her his purported badge number. The alarm persisted. “Oh my God, I can’t stand this noise,” she told him. She was so unnerved that she was shaking, and teeth were chattering.
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'Like I was in a dream'
Wright, a name she now believes is fake, told her to turn down the volume on the computer — but not to turn off the device. Even after lowering the volume, the alarm still screeched.
She was then transferred to another man, who lied and said her credit card had been charged $4,000 for visiting a child-porn website in China. In a soothing voice, he said he’d fix that. He asked if she drove. He asked if there were Lowe’s stores nearby. He never gave his name, and she didn’t ask.
The woman, who earlier worked at a bank and a credit union, says it seemed odd that Microsoft would remedy a credit card problem, but she didn’t question it. “I felt like I was not me. I was somebody else,” she says. “Honestly, I felt like I was in a dream or something."
Roadmap to ruin
The second crook told her to spend thousands on Target gift cards at Lowe’s and knew all the nearby locations. Without elaboration, he also made a point of telling her not to buy the cards at Target or Home Depot.
At every Lowe’s stop, the fraudster told her to keep her phone on but leave it behind in her car. According to receipts, she bought $3,500 in Target cards at Lowe’s in Arnold, Missouri; $2,500 worth in Kirkwood, Missouri; $3,000 worth in Fenton, Missouri; and $4,000 worth in St. Louis. After each purchase, she did as instructed and gave the fraudster the card numbers and access codes, granting him and his co-conspirators immediate access to the cards’ value.
As if ‘in a trance’
No one at Lowe’s tried to halt the purchases, the woman says, although clerks at two stores asked her, “Are you OK?” She regrets nodding to signify she was alright. “I wish I would have just said no,” she says now, “but honest to God, I felt like I was somebody else, like I was in a trance.”
After the fourth purchase, she was bedraggled and hungry and headed for home. Her phone kept ringing, but while driving, she refused to answer it. Once home, the call log showed multiple missed calls from the fraudsters with a warning from her wireless provider: “Scam.” (A number of phone companies offer what's known as such "call labeling" to alert consumers to a call that probably is a scam or spam.)When the second fraudster called again, she barked, “Wait a minute, this is a scam!” prompting him to hang up. And disappear.
Gift cards bled dry
That evening the victim and a relative alerted Target. The next day they learned that all the gift cards had been drained after purchases made at Target stores in California, New York and Texas. The woman reported the fraud to police and her credit card companies and called AARP’s Fraud Watch Network helpline, 1-877-908-3360.
AARP is leading the charge in a campaign to prevent gift card payment fraud and urges consumers to buy gift cards only for people whom they know and trust — never for strangers.
The Federal Trade Commission takes complaints about gift card fraud. It said losses to frauds tied to gift cards and reload cards, such as Green Dot, soared to a record $125.3 million in 2020. Already in the first half of 2021, losses have hit $123 million.
Lowe’s, Target respond
Lowe's and its affiliates operate or service more than 2,200 stores in the U.S. and Canada. The company, based in Mooresville, North Carolina, declined to answer AARP questions about the case, including whether it limits how many gift cards a customer can buy in one transaction or day. In a statement, the company said it was “saddened to learn that [the woman’s name] appears to be the victim of someone committing a gift card scam.”
Lowe’s takes this issue “very seriously” and has practices designed to help reduce fraud including in-store signage and online warnings and “standard processes” for its associates, the statement added. The company also said it works closely with law enforcement and others to combat this illegal activity and prosecute criminals and encouraged customers to visit its website for tips on identifying gift card scams.
The Minneapolis-based Target has 1,915 stores in the U.S. “Unfortunately, gift card scams are a persistent issue across the retail industry and increasingly prevalent with the elderly population,” company spokesman Brian Harper-Tibaldo said in a statement. “Target takes these crimes extremely seriously and we use a multi-layered, comprehensive approach to mitigate fraud.” The approach includes technology, team member training and collaboration with law enforcement, the statement said.
Target employees are educated to “keep an eye out for potentially distressed guests buying gift cards and intervene as needed,” he added.
‘Burn in hell’
The woman is seeking relief from the two companies that issued the credit cards she used, but already one turned her down flat. She is sharing her story with the hope of preventing others from becoming victims. And she remains angry at the criminal who had her buy the now-useless gift cards.
“All’s I can say is I’ve been praying to Michael the Archangel that he burns in hell, this person who did this to me. I just wish something horrible would happen to him,” she says. “And I know it’s not right to say, but I don’t care.”
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.