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Computer Hacker Drains Couple's Life Savings

In part 1, a retired couple finds their life suddenly turned upside down when their computer is hacked

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Full Transcript


[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.  

[00:00:03] Dianne Clemens: I am frantically trying to push buttons to figure out how to get this noise down. And a screen came up on my computer and said, "You have been hacked. This is Microsoft. Call us."  

[00:00:20] Tom Clemens: Sure enough, I was sitting there, and someone had taken over the computer, and I could see the cursor moving around. I said, "Well there's definitely somebody in the computer." 


[00:00:32] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Our computers are our portals to the world now. That's been kind of true for a while, but during the pandemic it became, well, true for everyone. All the time. Like a lot of things we count on, water, electricity, internet access; we don't quite realize how much we depend on them until they're taken away from us. In today's story, we'll meet Tom and Dianne Clemens. They're lovely people, retired professors. She's a cancer survivor who had to lock down pretty tight during the pandemic and then they found their connection to the outside world cutoff in more ways than one. And this threat eventually costs both of them their entire life savings. Most of it stolen in boxes of cash. We'll get to that, but first, the best way to meet Tom and Dianne is to meet their daughter, Erika. 

[00:01:31] Erika Clemens: Okay, so first thing that pops in my head, I think about my dad, we, we played puppies a lot, so he was the big dog and my brother and I were the little dogs, puppies, I guess, and we would be wrestling with him and rolling around on the floor, and my dad, you know, we'd be really getting into it, you know, and my mom would always be sitting in the chair watching and smiling. And she would be cautioning us, she's like, "Careful, careful, Tom. Okay, careful, kids, careful. You know what happens, someone always ends up getting hurt." And sure enough, someone always would get hurt, which was usually my brother, and he would burst into tears, and then we called my mom the hospital. So when anytime we got hurt, then we ran over to her, and she soothed and comforted us. 

[00:02:09] Bob: Tom and Dianne are well, salt of the earth is a phrase used too much, but it's hard to avoid talking about them. They live in Normal, Illinois, for heck's sake though they are originally from North Dakota. That's where they met.  

[00:02:24] Tom Clemens: Well, we didn't really have dates. We made a joke of it later that we didn't have dates. We were kind of became friends. When we both going out with different people. We just became friends for about 2 years. And our first real date was a trip to the Rocky Mountains together. 

[00:02:44] Bob: Wow. 

[00:02:45] Tom Clemens: It was 1974. 

[00:02:47] Bob: Do you remember where in the Rocky Mountains you were?  

[00:02:49] Tom Clemens: Well let's see, we took off. We went to Yellowstone National Park which was closed 'cause there had been a fire, but we drove around there, and we went to Jackson Hole, and then we drove up through Montana, the Gallatin Mountains, River Valley, up to Highway 2 which is one of the northernmost highways in the United States. And by the time we got to Haver, Montana, which is almost to North Dakota, we decided to get married. 

[00:03:18] Bob: That is such a great story. 

[00:03:21] Tom Clemens: Then we drove to her parents' farm outside of Grafton, North Dakota, and told them, on that trip. So that's what we did. So that was kind of a long day, but that's kind of how it was. 

[00:03:35] Dianne Clemens: It was.  

[00:03:36] Bob: They were both teachers, professors eventually, and that's how they ended up in Illinois, but Dianne has another word for their careers. 

[00:03:47] Bob: So that means the two of you are, have spent an entire life basically trying to mold other people and, and care for them, right?  

[00:03:54] Dianne Clemens: I would like to think so, and I would just say because of the professions that we were in, we saw it more as servant roles. Um, we were not into big bucks or into making money, otherwise we wouldn't have gone into those professions. But yes, we cared deeply about people, helping people, and feel that we want to give and offer what we have. 

[00:04:20] Bob: Erika, no surprise, also ended up in a caring profession. She takes care of some of the weakest, most vulnerable people you can imagine.  

[00:04:30] Erika Clemens: So I'm a NICU occupational therapist. So work in a, I work in a neo-natal ICU. So I'm a developmental specialist, an infant uh feeding specialist, a lactation consultant, and so I help essentially parents and staff and through education and teaching and time, um, help them help their babies grow and develop optimally. So for best outcomes. And it's very rewarding. You know, you think about all the spectrum of personalities in the world, and how parents can definitely be mama and papa bear, or mama and mama bear, or a papa and papa bear or whatever the case may be. And then you put them in a situation like a NICU where they're completely out of control, and fearful for their children and what's going to happen, and totally uncertain, and you have to manage those really intense emotions while treating their child, and so you have to learn to deescalate, to calm, to soothe.


[00:05:27] Bob: When Tom and Dianne had given all they have and then some, they retired looking forward to many years exploring hobbies. Tom, who spent a lot of his young years entertaining his friends by playing the guitar decided to take up the fiddle for example.

[00:05:45] Tom Clemens: On the top of my head, I'm just going to play a Swedish Schottische. 

[00:05:47] Bob: Perfect. 

[00:05:48] Tom Clemens: (plays fiddle) 

[00:05:58] Bob: But life had other plans for this retired couple. 

[00:06:03] Dianne Clemens: I made a very concerted effort to change my ways and to spend more time just being and not doing. So I got out of organizations, and I didn't join things like that. And that was wonderful. Then, two years after I retired, I developed breast cancer. And that slowed me down appreciably. 

[00:06:23] Bob: Dianne's treatment was aggressive but she somehow managed to see the bright side. Then during the time she was healing, COVID hit, and even though her medical condition meant she had to be even more careful than most people during the pandemic, well she managed to see the bright side of that too. 

[00:06:42] Dianne Clemens: I recovered well, and I got into more exercise, and I just found kind of a new different life, a little bit more focused on me rather than others. And um, then the COVID hit, of course, and that was very much into isolation, and but both Tom and I enjoyed actually COVID. We were fortunate to not get it, and when you retire, it's just like this ideal time to be in a pandemic. So we just enjoyed being home together, we never had enough time together at home, and we both have hobbies, and my husband is especially into hobbies that are isolative. He reads and he paints, and he plays the violin, and he learns languages and so he likes to be alone. And I like NCIS, and movies on TV, and Netflix, and books.  

[00:07:35] Bob: So Tom and Dianne like all of us were relying on their computer as their only connection to the outside world, and after months and months of zooming to stay in touch with family, well, they decide to get a new faster computer, and it's great. But only a couple of days after they first turn it on...

[00:07:57] Dianne Clemens: I was going to access online our local newspaper, and before I could get to that icon, the loudest noise occurred out of my computer. It sounded like a freight train. I had never heard that noise before. And I am frantically trying to push buttons to figure out how to get this noise down, not knowing what the noise was, but just knowing it was disconcerting to hear the noise. And within a couple of seconds, with the noise blaring, there was a screen came up on my computer and said, "You have been hacked. This is Microsoft. Call us."  

[00:08:51] Bob: I think everyone can relate to the idea of a noise that, that completely throws you off. I'm, I'm thinking now about a fire alarm in a building, right, and how many times have you run out of the building without your wallet or something because the noise, you just want to get away from the noise, right? 

[00:09:05] Dianne Clemens: That's right, exactly. It was, it was unsettling. It just threw me off and I was just focused totally on getting rid of this noise, and I was home alone at the time, and so I picked up my cell phone, and I called this number.  

[00:09:25] Bob: And when she does, a man answers right away. 

[00:09:29] Dianne Clemens: The phone was answered by somebody who identified themselves as David Morgan from Microsoft. Gave me a badge number. And said that he would help me get this noise under control. And so he had to speak loudly. I had to go into the other room because of the noise where I was with the computer in order to even hear him say that. So he directed me back to the computer and to some, what buttons to push, I don't remember what they were. And I got the noise under control. It probably took about a minute. And then he went on to say that we had been hacked, and that he was going to get me in touch with somebody that would help get to the bottom of this. And so he transferred me to somebody named Neil. 

[00:10:26] Bob: Neil gets on the phone and says Dianne is in trouble. Her personal information has been stolen. He gives her instructions on how to look at a file on her computer so she can see the problem for herself. 

[00:10:39] Dianne Clemens: And there it was right there, you know, it was, you know, my phone number and it was information about me, and it was in fact that I remember then seeing words like listening, listening, listening, listening, all these numbers and all this code and all this kind of stuff, it was pages of it. I'm not a computer person. And him telling me that this all was evidence to him, who was this professional, that we had been significantly hacked. And I remember saying, "This has got to be something from the store because I just bought this computer. How can I be hacked when I just have had this computer for four days?" And he said, "No, it's, I don't know how this happened, but it has happened, and so we need to get to the bottom of this." 

[00:11:24] Bob: Getting to the bottom of it means understanding just how far into Dianne's life the hackers had tunneled. So Neil asks Dianne more questions. Where do you bank? Oh, PNC? I'll get PNC security on the phone right away. And man named Marcus joins the call, and he soon has more bad news. 

[00:11:47] Dianne Clemens: He was very, you know, thank you so much for this and for allowing me to help you and very polite, very professional. Marcus went on to say that he could access my account, and he said that I see that you approved a purchase uh for $9999 during the night, uh last night. And I said, "No, I didn't." And he said, "Well," he said, "at 4:20 this morning, you approved this purchase."  

[00:12:27] Bob: The nearly $10,000 charge is on a pornography site. Dianne is mortified. Marcus says he'll be able to fix things, but he has to go and will call back later. Soon after Tom comes home. 

[00:12:43] Dianne Clemens: I told him this, and he said, "Well, you know, whatever you say, Dianne. I mean it sounds like, you know, use your best judgment," and he knew I would, and so I proceeded. Marcus called back, and he said that I needed, in order to get this money, $9999, reversed, I needed to do it through gift cards. I said, "That sounds like the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." I mean what would PNC have to do with gift cards and me going to Best Buy or me going to Sam's Club? "No," he said, "I know it, but you know, this is what we've figured out and how to work this."  

[00:13:24] Bob: So Dianne sets out to follow Marcus's instructions. She tells Tom to stay at home and watch their computer. 

[00:13:32] Tom Clemens: And so I went to her computer, which at that time was in the living room. And she said, "Just watch this in case something happens and then let me know if something happens." Well, sure enough, I was sitting there, and someone had taken over the computer, and I could see the cursor moving around. So I called her, and she was at the bank, and I told her this. I said, "Well there's definitely somebody in the computer." So we shut it down and she proceeded then uh to take some money out and go buy gift cards.  

[00:14:04] Bob: Marcus meticulously walks her through every step of the process getting cash from the bank and ultimately visiting several stores to purchase a set of gift cards staying on the phone with her pretty much the whole time.

[00:14:18] Dianne Clemens: He would say, "Put me in your purse then I'll be with you at all times when you go in the store and purchase these gift cards," and then when I would get out of the store, why then, he would ask me about these gift cards, and I would give him the number, and he'd say, "Now put those away in a safe place because they can be tracked by the people that are following you and watching you with everything." It was easy to tell the people in the store at that point that I was going to use the gift cards as Christmas presents, Thanksgiving presents, this kind of thing.  

[00:14:53] Bob: After Dianne purchases $10,000 in gift cards and gives Marcus the numbers, he says he's able to fix the fraudulent charge from the porn site, but Marcus then turns his attention to the rest of Tom and Dianne's financial life. He tells her...

[00:15:10] Dianne Clemens: "Now this is just fine, you are okay now. But let's just make sure that the rest of your accounts are okay. But we've taken care of this, and Neil is still working on your computer, but financially you look okay, but let's just check everything else out. Now where do you, else do you have some money um, do you have any investments or what do you have or what, what is your financial situation?" I say, "Well, yes, we have got some money saved through investments through a couple of, through four different organizations." He asked if we had online banking. I said, "No, we don't have online banking" because, you know, you can't really trust people on the internet. And so therefore, I said, "We've never got into online banking." And so we, and he said, "Well what do you do if you want to get money?" And I said, "Well, we just go to the bank and get money out of our checking account and our small savings account."  

[00:16:02] Bob: Marcus says he'll investigate her other accounts, hangs up, and soon calls back with more news. An investment account has been hacked, but maybe even worse. It was an inside job. Someone at the financial institution is trying to steal from her. So she has to go get all her money out of the bank. But she must be incredibly secretive about it. She can't tell anyone, especially anyone at the bank, because the criminal might get to her cash before she can, or the investigation might be ruined. 

[00:16:38] Dianne Clemens: With the plan that Marcus and the company would turn around and put the money back into a more secure fund, a new fund that is being hid from these bad people that are trying to get my money. All along it was the idea that there is obviously somebody at PNC bank or at any of these institutions that is leaking information. And so we need to be cautious that we don't put up red flags, that the scammers in the institutions learn that we are onto them, because they also, PNC Fraud, was trying to catch these people. Neil said this too in regards to Microsoft. He said, "I just want you to know, the last three cases I've been on, it's been inside jobs.  

[00:17:31] Bob: The investigators keep stressing how important absolute secrecy is. 

[00:17:36] Tom Clemens: From the very beginning they said, "Don't talk to your local bank officials because we think this is an inside job on the part of PNC." And so the fellow representing PNC said, "We're trying to find the culprit within the corporation." So we did not talk to, we went to, when she went to the bank to get money out, she did not mention this.  

[00:18:02] Bob: The first step is to make major withdrawals and then wire the money to an account Marcus gives them and doing that, without raising the suspicion of the bank tellers. They move money out in smaller chunks to stay under the radar. Still, the bankers might ask questions, so Dianne has to be creative with Marcus's help. 

[00:18:23] Dianne Clemens: So I would have $40,000 in my checking account, and I'd say, "I'm going to draw this out, and I'm going to send it to my grandson." Marcus gave me a sketch of a story to say, and I was able to embellish it, this story, to convince them to give me, to get this money out. The people that I was dealing with at the banks, the branch manager or the personal bankers, they, of course, sat in their chair with their arms crossed in front of them over the desk and said, "You know, there's a lot of scamming and stuff going on in this world right now, and I just need to ask you some questions, and is this really legitimate? And so I would say, "Well, of course I think that I should do this. I know that this is legitimate. My grandson is operating and starting a bicycle business in Madison, Wisconsin, and he is getting all of his bicycle parts out of Hong Kong. And I am paying for some of these bicycle parts, and so I am sending money to this gentleman in Hong Kong who's his business associate. And I know these people. And my grandson would never get me into something that was illegal or not on the up and up or anything."  

[00:19:45] Bob: Right about then, while trying to care for this nerve-wracking attack on their financial life, the news gets much, much worse for Dianne. 

[00:19:54] Tom Clemens: At the end of about the fourth week another problem arose. Her breast cancer had come back uh up, showed up on a screening. And so that just really threw her, 'cause she has a triple negative cancer, and they said that if it comes back, it's probably going to be with you the rest of your life in one form or another. So she was shook. So then I was shook. And we were dealing with these two major things at one time, and that's how our world became radically changed at that time.  


[00:20:27] Bob: The news is devastating. But Marcus keeps stressing that time is of the essence and pushes Dianne to go back into the bank and move the next chunk of money out of her account. The next time Dianne goes, Marcus warns her the bank might start asking even more questions. So she is prepared. Desperate to protect her money from criminals, she was told we're operating secretly inside the bank and exhausted from her devastating medical diagnosis, she merges her two personal traumas into one story.  

[00:21:04] Dianne Clemens: I went to get an international transfer. At one of the banks I said, "You know, I'm, I'm undergoing breast cancer, and I, you know, I need some assistance, and so I'm, you know, it's not your choice, but it's my choice. I'm going to go to this other country and get some experimental treatment. And they guy leaned over the table to me and looked me square in the face and said, "You don't have cancer."


[00:21:33] Bob: You don’t have cancer. That's an awful thing to hear, and it seems to prove what Marcus is saying that people at our local bank are really against her. So at this point, they decide to switch to cash transfers. That will be simpler than moving money to an account overseas. So Dianne and Tom transfer the rest of their retirement into their checking account and then go to the bank to withdraw it. In cash. And that's when things get very, very CSI.

[00:22:11] Dianne Clemens: After we got the money, we were to take a picture of the money, send Marcus a picture of the money, put the money in a box, seal the box, and then we would take this to a location where someone would meet us and we, we would give them the money in this box.  

[00:22:28] Bob: How did that feel? 

[00:22:31] Dianne Clemens: It was surreal. Tom went with me because I said, of course, you know, I can't do this. It was evening. It was like we're not really doing this. It was creepy, we made references to like this is kind of like a movie that we are in.  


[00:22:49] Bob: Tom and Dianne sitting in a dark parking lot with a box of almost $50,000 in their lap waiting for someone to knock on the car window and ask for the box, just like a movie. How does the movie end? Well that's next week on The Perfect Scam.  


[00:23:19] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; and of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan. 



For many, computers have been the connection to the outside world during the pandemic. When Dianne and Tom are hacked, they find that connection suddenly cut off. Worse yet, the retired professors’ bank accounts and entire life savings are now at risk. Frantic, they work with a bank employee to move their money to safe accounts, which includes meeting couriers to transfer boxes of cash.  

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