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The shame of the scammed - Bettine Mackenzie

Blog | By Bettine Mackenzie | Sep 24, 2021

Despite having avoided the same scam before and all the warning signs, I was scammed, says Bettine Mackenzie

Well, it’s happened. I’m thrilled to announce I’ve joined the brilliantly trusting and subtly traumatised team of people who have been scammed. Within just under an hour the well-behaved little electronic digits that had been sitting so calmly and quietly in my online banking account shifted themselves about to tell the story of how I handed everything I’ve ever earned over to a stranger on a cloudy Thursday afternoon. As much as I try to remind or teach myself the fact, I’ll never totally understand the extent to which a day can turn out so extremely differently from the way you expect it to. Mine, which began with a trip to the Co-op and quiet thoughts of lunch and ended with a hearty upcoming hangover and two pounds seventy five, handed me one takeaway (mental rather than edible - I can’t afford a takeaway anymore): that we never really know what’s round the corner, or, crucially, who’s on the phone.

It all began with a WhatsApp message forwarded to me by my usually perceptive boyfriend. It was the Post Office scam, of course. They needed to reschedule a delivery, of course, and charge a small fee for the service, of course. I’ve received and ignored this message about thirty times over the past year so what went wrong? People-pleasing, I’m afraid (so sorry, forgive me). The boyfriend was new, the delivery containing his expensive things was new, and somehow the idea of this little lost parcel sent from the Scottish Highlands into the big bad city of London offset my usually languid morning attitude. I clicked the link, whizzed through the immaculate website, doubted myself when they asked for account details, doubted my doubt and provided the account details, then plodded upstairs for some muesli. Step one of the scam neatly delivered to my fraudster before their morning turn onto the cold side of the pillow. From that moment on, I suppose, our day was married - for worse or for worse, in sleepiness and in stealth.

It’s funny how it’s always the way: you look back and can’t believe the series of small moments that led you to allow it to happen. In hindsight it all feels so inevitable, this journey so sure of itself, almost divinely planned precisely because it’s so abstract to the way your life normally goes. In any other situation, you tell yourself, you’d never have done it - never answered calls from an unknown number, never bothered about undelivered post. But the sliding doors are in motion and can only be seen to be firmly locked once you’ve been flung far inside the building. I happened to listen to a podcast on the night of my scam to try and fall asleep. The falling asleep was all going brilliantly well until the podcast began a timely deep dive into the subject of scams. The presenters spoke about how pensioners across the country were falling for this exact set of phishing attacks. “But remember they’re not just getting the over seventies, eighties and ninety year olds”, the podcast presenter graciously reminded her colleague, “but people from thirty-five upwards as well”. Being six years younger than this cut off age I realised, sadly, that I join the world of imposters as an absolute fraud of a millennial.

But this is one of those things that will never ever happen to you until it does. Like some sort of frenzied competitor in a sadistic go-kart game I identified the red flags, raced towards them as quickly as possible, successfully ploughed them all down and leapt onto the winner’s podium as a triumphant champion of gullibility. Thinking back I can almost remember hearing my scammer’s breathless disbelief at how well everything was going from the off. Could he have my password? Absolutely. Could I spell it out for him again? Of course, and I’m so sorry it’s so complicated (what a nightmare banking security is!). Could he also get my username, addresses, mother’s maiden name and the codes from any messages that come through on my phone saying ‘DO NOT GIVE OUT THIS CODE: ONLY A FRAUDSTER WOULD ASK FOR IT’? A million times, yes. He was an impressive actor (I have to tell myself this now, as well as everyone else, because that’s the only excuse I have to go on) and even more impressive in his intricate research into my personal world. He churned out word-for-word the script my bank uses for its security check, robbing my trust from the start by telling me I’d “passed using voice recognition technology”. When I write this now I think about our respective moments of hearing each other’s voice for the first time. I wonder whether he was nervous or excited when I answered. Whether he was working alone or had others listening in. I sometimes heard scuffling in the background of the call and and built up a mental image of my friendly Edinburgh-based bank’s office. I could see the swivel chairs, the desktop computers, post-it notes, rosy colleagues gossiping over cups of tea. The power of imagination has a lot to answer for in situations like this.

During our hour long conversation I moved from the sitting room floor to the balcony to the sofa and finally to my bed like a lovestruck teenager attached to a 1990s landline. My fraudster asked if I’d recently fallen head-over-heels for the flavour-of-the-moment scam carried out by the Post Office: the institution who, after heroically transporting little wrapped moments of hope and relief up and down the country during lockdown, have had their name helplessly embroiled in this series of miserable deliverances. He was here to help me, my fraudster, my funny valentine, to rescue me from the financial chaos that was unfolding in my account as we spoke. One payment, he said, had been made at a ladies wear retail outlet I’d never heard of. I looked up the brand online and found it curious that the ‘scammer’ had chosen to spend a very particular amount of my money in a way that was almost modest. I looked through the site’s sequinned tops and fawn skirts and started to visualise them, this Liverpudlian shopper (he told me the transactions were being made from Liverpool), wondering if they had been hankering after this bundle of clothes for a long time or had an event lined up that they were happy they could finally feel fabulous at. I relayed this stream of imaginings to my fraudster. He told me to “bear with him” which was one of his favourite lines.

There’s one moment that I find particularly hard to think back on. A pivotal point where the game was raised. As the fraudster - Aaron Mutwande, by the way, was his ‘name’, and seeing as he has mine and every detail of my life I feel no shame in writing it (though pretty annoyed that it’s definitely a pseudonym) - listed off more and more extravagant transactions being made, I asked how the payments could even go through when I didn’t actually have enough money for them. A short pause. “There’s not enough in this account for those transactions?”. “No”, I replied. A whip of a matador red flag came back at me: “Is there another account they could be transferring from?” followed by my knife-in-the-bulls-neck reply: “could they be moving money over from my savings account?”. After a brief pause there was breathless leap into action from Aaron. He would, of course, need access to my savings account too. I had instinctive moments of panic that I ignored all the way through the call. I cross referenced the phone number he rang on and it linked up to a company that used my bank’s name. I told Aaron that my confidence was shaken and he ran through the motions of confidently reassuring me that he was helping. I even asked, completely directly and with only a little bit of my tongue in my cheek, whether he, in fact, within all this, was a scammer? A dense moment of silence on the end of the line before a defensive and definitive answer arrived back. “No”. The amazing thing is that it turns out a scammer won’t actually admit they’re a scammer to you whilst in the process scamming you. And the beautiful thing about lies is they work so flawlessly when delivered to people who want to believe them.

After an hour of moving about the house with this man pressed onto my ear I was proudly informed that the issue had been resolved. “That’s all sorted for you now” was another catchphrase Aaron adored and delivered about fourteen times. And I remember finding this odd, because I suddenly wasn’t sure what had been sorted. Had the money been returned? Had the account been secured? Aaron was elusive but somehow persuasive and essentially didn’t deviate from his favourite line. There was a quiver of elation in his voice whenever he repeated the phrase because it so clearly was sorted for him - perfectly, magically, effortlessly. Or perhaps he said it so often because he was receiving peals of silent standing ovations and air punches from the hushed team in the room behind him. Aaron, I’m sure, was a star of the office that day. By the end I almost got the sense he didn’t want the conversation to come to a close. Even after everything had been ‘sorted out for me’ Aaron insisted I call him if I had any further issues, went into detail abut my new card being delivered, told me that the bank were setting up a new system whereby every transaction would be double checked. It’s these bits that come back to you in the middle of the night. The slingshot hits of manipulation that are completely unnecessary.

The radio playing beside the bed I can’t get to sleep in has just told me that Emmanuelle Macron has been forced to change his phone after it was hacked through Pegasus spyware. I wonder if the French president has also gone through the motions of waking up with waves of panic at three in the morning after re-visualising a stranger trawling through your personal life with a wide net. Probably Macron's got quite a lot on and his team can resolve this intrusion fairly quickly. But I have almost no doubt that he felt violated, just like the rest of us.

Money comes and goes. It left my account and I’m fine; nobody depends on me financially, I have a generous and kind family who can always help out. But stolen money carves out a heavy cut in its wake, moving and evolving through stranger’s accounts like a great snake that regurgitates its prey and sheds its own skin. Perhaps my money will be spent on medication and save someone. Perhaps it will be spent on weapons and kill someone. I don’t want to know the guises my money will take on from hereon. Just like those of their targets, a fraudster’s story remains unknown; both linger as silent stories of desperation. But maybe, now and again, these scammers think of the stories behind the money whose journeys they’ve taken on: the long awaited wage slips, loan repayments, miraculous tax rebates, child’s university fees, savings for a holiday, so on. And perhaps that opposite imaginative journey will change their course a little. But what a shame that, meanwhile, this miserable cycle is so well funded.