Here Are Our Stories Of Being Scammed

Here Are Our Stories Of Being Scammed

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The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles published a long, harrowingly detailed story on Thursday about how she was scammed into handing over a shoebox with $50,000 in cash to someone who she thought worked for the CIA. It’s worth reading for the play-by-play of how the scammers reeled her in, first by posing as an Amazon customer service rep, then by convincing her that Maryland and Texas had warrants out for her arrest on charges of “cybercrimes, money laundering, and drug trafficking.” While nobody I know is a financial advice columnist or in possession of a loose $50K, people do get scammed all the time, and I feel for her.

Something Cowles points out in her story is that zoomers fall for scams more often than boomers, because younger people are online more. That speaks to the ubiquity of scammers; while not every spam call is going to have a fake CIA agent on the other end, a permanent condition of our lives is someone trying to trick you out of your money. In the past decade, most people know not to answer a phone call from an unfamiliar number, or to click on a link in a mysterious email. But not all of them.

Naturally, Cowles’s article prompted the Defector staff to recall the times they encountered scams. While none of these were as high-stakes or devastating as what happened to her, maybe they can provide a service as cautionary tales. At the very least, you’ll learn about some scams to avoid.


Dan McQuade: It was 2005. I was 22. My first journalism job out of college was a start-up newspaper where the gimmicks were 1) it was conservative and 2) there was no website. Sometimes they just didn’t pay us; we’d find out on payday. Once they didn’t pay a bill, and we all briefly lost our health insurance. It was a great introduction to what a career in media would be like.

One time, I was alone in the office. Two guys walked in with long cardboard boxes that looked like they had frames in them. And did they have a deal for me! “Yo, we have the art,” one guy said. I told them I had no idea what they were talking about. “Don’t you want it?” he said. “The lawyer upstairs couldn’t use all the art we had for him, and we can’t put it back on the truck.” I nodded, confused. “This is high-quality stuff. And we just can’t take it with us. We can give it to you for a low price.” I tried to explain how I was literally the lowest-ranking employee. I might’ve even explained that I sometimes didn’t even get paid. He continued to press.

I realized what was going on. I’d heard about a scam that went something like this: A guy comes to your door saying the freezer in his truck has broken. He has all this extra meat, and there’s no way he can get his truck fixed in time before it spoils. Can he sell some to you for real cheap, so at least he’ll be able to get something for it? It’s not the biggest scam; you basically just end up overpaying for meat. There are a lot of different versions, but this was the one I knew. I blurted it out: “Is this the thawing meat scam, but for art?” They realized I was not their pigeon and left.

But that was a scam I staved off, and this is story about a time I was scammed. Perhaps you’ve figured it out: I figured if the free-market conservative Catholic guy didn’t have the money to pay us some weeks, at least he’d tell us in advance. What a fucking mark I was.

Tom Ley: I’ve never been scammed in real life, but I did get scammed once while playing Diablo 2 as a pre-teen. This is only embarrassing because I spent a lot of my time scamming other players in Diablo 2.

Without getting too into the weeds, Diablo 2 was all about collecting unique items and trading them with other players. The in-game economy was so well-defined that every item’s relative value was easy to pinpoint: If you found a Wormskull (a cool helmet for a Necromancer character), you immediately knew which items it was more or less valuable than.

This created a good environment for scamming. I deployed a few cons, but the simplest went like this: I’d offer a trade that clearly favored the other player in terms of value, so that they would be eager to complete it. When we’d open the trade window—the in-game mechanic that allowed for exchanging items—I’d place my item on my side of the screen and wait for the other player to place theirs. You could place your mouse over the other player’s item to see its stats and confirm it was the correct item. At this point, both players had to click the “Accept” button to complete the trade. I would just close the trade window, quickly apologize (“Shit sorry hit the wrong button”), and then reopen it and place a useless item that looked exactly like the one I had offered to trade in the window. If everything worked, the other player would hit “Accept” before they had time to notice that I’d swapped items.

One day, some guy did this exact scam on me and somehow I didn’t notice it, even though I had done it to other players probably 100 times. He stole my Wormskull!

Kelsey McKinney: I almost got scammed by someone on Craigslist who wanted to buy my bookshelves with a money order, have me get the change for her, and give it to her with the bookshelves. I didn’t know this was a scam until much later, but I also didn’t fall for it because I’m supremely lazy and did not want to do the errand of going to the bank.

Albert Burneko: In high school, I got pressured into buying a dime bag of what pretty clearly wasn’t marijuana. What’s worse is that I didn’t smoke pot and certainly wouldn’t have smoked the bag’s contents even if it had been what it purported to be. I was just intimidated and worn down after like 45 minutes of cajoling by a kid with a lot more social capital than I had, so I handed my money over. It would have been less humiliating, by far, if he’d just said “Give me 10 bucks or I’ll kick your ass.” I furtively threw the dime bag away later that afternoon in a hallway trash can.

Dave McKenna: I saw an ad on Craigslist for a vintage Ibanez Tube Screamer for $80. That’s the pedal that gave Stevie Ray Vaughan his tone. Everybody knows that. Everybody also knows you can’t get a vintage Ibanez Tube Screamer for $80. But … maybe this guy, who according to the ad had found the pedal “with some old items,” doesn’t know that! So I answered immediately with an enthusiastic “I’d love to buy your cool fuzz pedal!” A guy texted me back within seconds and gave me a Maryland address and a full name and said he was in the Coast Guard and that other folks who’d answered the ad were lined up to come look at the pedal “after work,” but added, “If you want to pay for it now and claim it, it’s yours.”

The original Craigslist ad.

Dammit. The first rule of Craigslist is “Don’t pay first!” Everybody knows that. This was just another scam, one common enough in guitar obsessive circles to even have a name: “The David Culver Scam.” Basically: Somebody posts an ad for prized gear at a too-good-to-be-true price and tells everybody who responds about being flooded by people wanting to buy it, but if you just wire over some cash now it’ll be held for pickup. In this case, the address the guy gave me was a nursing home, and there was nobody living in the state of Maryland with the name he gave me.

I’d been foraging for guitar toys on Craigslist long enough to be pretty sure this wasn’t on the up and up. I politely declined the offer to prepay and even screencapped the ad before answering it. But hell, I wanted a vintage Ibanez Tube Screamer for $80. Who can blame me? I mean, that’s the pedal that gave Stevie Ray Vaughan his tone. Everybody knows that.

Patrick Redford: I was scammed by a cat.

Israel Daramola: In my junior year of college, I was at a Publix near the FSU campus when this kinda bro-y dude walked up to me in the parking lot. He said he had some brand-new stereo and speakers that he needed to unload and was willing to let them go for cheap. He gave me the real Jordan Belfort hard sell. Even though I was a pretty broke college student, I bought them mostly so he’d stop talking to me. I figured they were hot off some truck or stolen from somewhere else—not my business! In reality, they just didn’t work at all.

Giri Nathan: A guy called [family member whose identity I will protect] and the number that showed up on caller ID was a police number. You could google the number and it would reveal some guy at a local precinct; in fact, he encouraged her to do so and verify for herself. The guy on the phone said that her identity had been stolen and was being used to commit a bunch of serious crimes in Texas. He said he needed her to take immediate action—unclear if any money was involved, so I’m not sure what the upside was—or he would send police immediately to her doorstep. There was a lot of urgency in his voice and he was clearly trying to instill panic. She was on the phone for about 45 minutes, taking extensive notes, before I started to overhear the conversation and told [family member] it was a scam. Also, [family member] is a lawyer who works directly with the criminal legal system.

Chris Thompson: I was scammed pretty brutally the first time that I ever visited New Orleans. I had been on the ground for maybe 30 minutes and was walking toward the French Quarter, full of excitement, when an older man on a street corner offered to guess my age. I was aware that what this man wanted from me was money. Had he just asked me for money, I would’ve given him money. But he asked to guess my age. I did not want to stop for this, so I said no thanks. He pleaded with me, insisting that I had two minutes to spare. There were a couple other people standing around watching, and I felt very embarrassed. Also I am bad with confrontation, so I said sure. Suddenly, he knelt on the ground in front of me and directed me to put my foot on his knee. I did not want to do this. I did not understand at all what was going on. I must’ve thought that he intended to use my shoe size to guess my age, or something.

That is not what happened. As soon as my foot touched his knee, and so quickly that I did not have time to react, he produced a small, unlabeled plastic bottle and from it squirted a large glob of slimy white ooze all over my shoe. I yelped. He laughed and produced the grimiest rag ever seen, as if to clean my shoes. It was at this point that he noticed that the loafer on my foot that he was grasping was made of suede. He and I processed silently and simultaneously that he had ruined the shoe. He muttered something rude about teaching me my first lesson about visiting New Orleans and began to apply the filthy rag to the shoe, mopping up the greasy white slime. I stood there like an asshole while he exchanged amused side-glances with the other people on the corner, several of whom were openly laughing at my stupidity. When he’d sufficiently ground the slime into my shoe, he put my foot down, stood up, faced me, held out his hand, and said, “That’ll be $50.”

I laughed as if he had to be joking. My face, I’m sure, was the color of raspberries, and I was sweating, and I felt very much like if I had to say more than a syllable or two, my voice would quiver and it would be obvious that I was gulping back a sob. The man said that I was attempting to back out of some deal that we’d made. Several of his confederates moved closer, so that I had the definite sense that I was being extorted. Like the world’s biggest sucker, I gave him a $20 bill and then stormed off, feeling like every single living thing in the entire state of Louisiana was marking my passing. I thought seriously about going home that very afternoon. Thankfully I had other, much better experiences of New Orleans in the coming days, although the weird, Florida-shaped stain on my shoe got only darker and more disgusting over time. I paid a peddler $20 to ruin my shoe, and had to console myself that I’d somehow gotten a discount.

Maitreyi Anantharaman: Scam stories? I’ve never been scammed. One time I stole this nerd’s Wormskull in Diablo 2.



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