How scammers targeted my mother

BY Becca Andrews

25th Jan 2024 Life

13 min read

How scammers targeted my mother
The scammer told my mother on the phone that she was in trouble but he could help. It took us months to recoup her money—and her dignity
One December morning, my mother’s phone rang. She tugged the iPhone from the holster she kept clipped to the waist of her jeans and wondered who might be calling. Perhaps someone from church was checking in on her recovery from COVID-19. “Hello?” she said.
The voice that greeted her was masculine. The caller sounded concerned, and he told her something was wrong with her Amazon account. “Someone has access to your bank accounts through Amazon, and they can take all your money,” he told her. “I’m calling to help.”
"Someone has access to your bank accounts through Amazon, and they can take all your money. I'm calling to help"
Her mind raced. Oh Lord, she prayed silently. Oh Lord, give me strength. The voice was warm and reassuring, and my mum tried to focus closely on his words. My dad was driving to work, and she was alone at their home in the southern US state of Tennessee. She had been cooped up in the house for weeks with Covid, isolated from her community, and she missed the sound of a friendly voice.
She tried to steady herself. The man said he needed information to make sure the money was safe. He transferred her to a different male voice—again soothing, reassuring, calm. She promised not to hang up. A brain injury decades earlier made it hard for her to follow his instructions, but she tried. The voice explained slowly, carefully, how to swipe and tap on her phone until she had installed an app that allowed him to see what was happening on her screen. Now he followed her every move.

Don't hang up, or we'll lose our progress

After some hours, she mentioned she had to relieve herself. “It’s OK. I’ll stay on the line,” he said. She put down the phone outside the bathroom and picked it back up when she was done. As noon approached, she told him, “I have to eat.”
“I’ll wait. It’s OK. Don’t hang up, or we’ll lose all our progress.”
She set the phone down on the counter to make a sandwich, then pulled some crisps from a cabinet and padded over to the kitchen table.
The phone buzzed with a text—it was my father, checking in. She typed back that there was a problem but that she was fixing it; she had it all taken care of. She tapped the tiny white arrow next to the message field to send her reply, and then she heard the voice on the phone, its volume elevated. It sounded angry.

You can't tell anyone

photo illustration of hand holidng phone with money and app logos around
“Why would you do that? You can’t tell anyone! What if he’s in on it?” She felt confused. That didn’t make any sense. But she also didn’t fully trust herself. She was worn out from her slow recovery, and the steroids she was taking as treatment gave her a hollow buzz of energy.
A 20-minute drive away, my dad sat at his bare desk in the office of an automotive manufacturing plant. Reading her message, he felt a prickle of anxiety. But he, too, was on the mend from Covid, and his mind felt foggy. He had recently started a new job as a manager at the factory, and he was still figuring out his colleagues and their processes. He got another message, this one from a co-worker, and he forgot about his wife’s text. He adjusted his mask and switched to composing an email he had been meaning to send.
At home, my mother dug out her worn, printed-out packet of passwords from a pile of books and old church bulletins on a side table and flipped through its curling pages. She returned to her chair in the kitchen and followed along as the man told her where to enter them. She tapped to install Cash App, a mobile payment service. She opened up PayPal. She downloaded Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange platform. She set up Zelle, another payment app, so she could easily send money directly from her bank account.
She didn’t recognise all the names, but she wrote down her new passwords in the margins of her document. As the afternoon wore on, she began wishing for a nap. “We’re almost done,” the man assured her.
“He’s going to be home soon, my husband will be home soon,” my mother said.
She just wanted to be finished and then to never think about it again. The technology made her feel as if she were fumbling in the dark, and she was reluctant to ask more questions. Outside, the sun had dipped below the wooden fence surrounding the backyard, and the house had fallen into a gloom when the man finally ended the call.

Scammer siphoned away personal information and money

That night, when my father got home, he noticed right away that something was off. My mother was jittery and kept fussing with gadgets on the kitchen counters. Food sat out on the stove, and he was hungry, but he suddenly remembered the text from earlier. “What happened today?” he asked.
She shook her head. “You don’t need to do anything. I got it all taken care of,” she said.
“Got what taken care of?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you.”
My mother thought she had laboured for hours doing what was necessary to protect herself and her family. Instead, the scammer had siphoned away all her personal information—her Social Security number, date of birth, driver’s licence number—and about $11,000. The new financial apps she’d installed were all portals through which more of my parents’ money could flow into strangers’ hands.

Months of undoing the damage

In the next months, my father and I tried the best we could to undo the damage. It was a frustrating journey. Getting scammed was dehumanising on its own, but so were the hours spent begging customer service people for help. I pleaded. I raged. I started to wish the app companies could take a page from our scammer.
"Getting scammed was dehumanising on its own, but so were the hours spent begging customer service people for help"
While he had come across as friendly and reassuring, I got chilly half-replies or, just as often, silence. By the end, all I wanted was for someone to show some empathy—to say, perhaps, “I’m calling to help. It’s OK. We’re almost done. I’ll stay with you until we’re done.”

Mum's seizures and health struggles

My parents met outside the mechanical engineering building at Mississippi State University. At the time, my mother was recovering from a traumatic car crash that left her with frequent partial seizures, which made it harder for her to study. But she managed to become one of the rare women to graduate with a civil engineering degree. A year later, my dad graduated and joined the US Navy as a mechanical engineer, and they got married.
After that, my mum’s seizures began to worsen. When they moved to a military base in Tennessee, the state denied her a driver’s licence, and she was devastated. She visited doctors and underwent extensive testing. Doctors gave her two choices. She could take medication to help control the seizures, but she would still be unable to drive. Or she could undergo a risky surgery to remove the scar tissue on her brain and, with luck, end the seizures. Once my little sister and I were born, she realised she needed to be able to drive. She got the surgery.
Her recovery was tough. She ping-ponged between unspeakable fury and unstoppable tears. Her short-term memory was unreliable, and she had a hard time reading text. At bedtime she liked to read to me from a religious storybook called Alice in Bibleland, but she often stumbled on the words and glared at them in frustration. When she got stuck on a page, I would pick up where she had left off and tell the tale from memory, hoping to soothe her.
After about a year, she recovered, and her life went back to normal. But as more time passed, I again noticed her struggling with basic tasks. She became overwhelmed fixing meals that once were routine, and she got angry when she forgot where she had placed her keys. Ever since then, I have felt a responsibility to protect my mother from what my dad calls “two-legged monsters”—people who sniff out weakness and prey on her friendly, open nature.

A difficult evening

Smashed piggy bank being vacuumed of money
The evening of the phone call, my father again asked my mother about her text message, and the story spilled out. His stomach in knots, he swept past the food on the stove to the living room to grab his iPad. He sank into his creaky recliner and pulled up their bank accounts. He could see the withdrawals: $10,000 to Coinbase, $999 to Zelle, $70 to Cash App. For some reason—perhaps to cause confusion—$2,000 had been moved from their savings account to a credit union they used. He felt queasy.
"I can’t remember. I don’t know what to do... This was so stupid. I can’t believe I did this. So stupid"
He phoned their bank and spent the next few hours on the line. My mother, agitated, perched on the armrest beside him, trying to recall her conversations with the scammers. “I can’t remember. I don’t know what to do,” she said repeatedly. The bank representative helped them deactivate Zelle but did nothing about the $999 transferred through it.
When the call ended, my parents huddled around her phone and thumbed through the unfamiliar payment apps. They eventually zeroed in on changing their passwords. They turned to the printed list of passwords, but neither my mom nor my dad could decipher her notes. “This was so stupid. I can’t believe I did this. So stupid,” she said, again and again. When my dad finally sat down to eat, he lifted his fork to his mouth without tasting much. That night, they barely slept.

Asking for help

The next day, my father did what many parents with tech problems do. He called one of his children—me. I was on a work trip that kept me frantically busy, and I had just given in to the urge to take a short nap. I had barely closed my eyes when the phone rang.
“Hello!” he said, his voice uncannily chipper.
“Hi,” I answered cautiously. “What’s wrong?”
“I just need to talk something through and figure out how to handle it,” my dad said. His voice dropped a half-octave as he abandoned his cheery tone and gave me the basic outline. His lunch break was ending soon, so we agreed to continue the conversation later. Feeling antsy, I poured myself a glass of water and paced around my Airbnb, thinking. Then I sat down at my laptop and started to type.
“Some privacy thoughts,” I wrote to my dad. “Now they have your address. Make sure she knows not to open the door for anyone she doesn’t know.” I ticked off more items: Contact Experian, a credit monitoring agency; shut down the accounts for the apps she’d installed; contact the federal tax department in case of identity theft.
That night, after work, my dad called back, and together, we set up fraud alerts through Experian. My father texted me the password to my mum’s PayPal account, and I managed to shut it down. He got back on the line with their bank, and that night—fortunately—learned he could recoup nearly $10,000.

Mum's guilt

A woman, brain, question marks and money illustration
The next day, I called my mother to ask for her version of the events. Her reply was simple, and the pain behind her words was clear. “I did a stupid thing,” she said. “I’m so stupid.”
Her words rang in my head. Right then my mum needed a daughter, not a technical assistant. My mind jumped to skipping my flight home to California, renting a car and driving to their home in Tennessee to reassure her in person. But I was due back at work, and I headed to the airport instead.
That day has become a clear demarcation in time for me. Sure, we got most of the money back. But I no longer trust that my parents are safe. That’s why, in the following year, I moved so that I could live closer to them.

Customer service hell

For weeks and months after the phone call, I sank into deeper and deeper levels of customer service hell as I tried to close the remaining accounts. The worst experience was trying to close my mum’s Cash App account, which we feared the scammers might still access. For a while, my correspondent at Cash App kept addressing me in emails as “Jenith,” which is neither my name nor my mother’s.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to get clear guidance. I emailed. I called. I was transferred to several agents, all of whom had different thoughts on the matter. One suggested I send documentation declaring my mother dead. Another advised gaining legal guardianship over her.
Cash App, for the record, is owned by Block, which is worth roughly $55 billion and is clearly not short on resources. I understand why they were reluctant to help—I was not, after all, my mother—but I grew increasingly frustrated at what seemed a superhuman lack of empathy.
Finally, I tagged the company in an exasperated tweet. Such measures have always seemed tacky to me, like throwing a tantrum in public. But it worked—the company told me to send a message with more details. That day I messaged back and forth with Cash App “support,” and I rehashed all the things I’d already tried or been told to try. I was fully caffeinated and at the end of my rope, which meant my messages had some… personality.
“I know this is not your fault,” I typed, “but it is really frustrating that there is not a better way to resolve this—I cannot be the first person to experience this.” Indeed, I was not: In the first year of the pandemic, fraud-related complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, the US government’s consumer protection agency, against Cash App ballooned 427%. (A company spokesperson says Cash App has since improved its fraud-detection capabilities.)
"One representative suggested I send documentation declaring my mother dead. Another advised gaining legal guardianship over her"
To my surprise, I got an acknowledgment: “We totally hear you, and we will do everything we can to help out here. If those steps don’t work, just let us know, and we’ll try other options here.” I felt a flicker of optimism—what a curious, enchanting thing, this glint of humanity on the other end.
That conversation guided me to do something I probably should have done months earlier, but didn’t think of in the anxiety of it all: download the app and sign in as my mother.
The reason I couldn’t easily close the account, I came to realise, was that the scammer had left my mother with a negative balance of $20 and had also bought a small amount in bitcoin, which was still sitting in her account.
The Cash App representative suggested I sell the bitcoin to pay off the negative balance and send whatever was left back to my mum’s bank. Then I could be free of the company. Sitting at my desk, I tapped the button to sell the bitcoin and used the proceeds to escape the Cash App universe.
“I cannot tell you what a relief this is,” I typed into my message thread. “AHH! So happy to hear this, Becca!” my Cash App Support friend typed back. “Apologies for the stressful start there, but we’re so glad this has finally been resolved for you.”
Seated in my desk chair, I pushed back from my keyboard, slumped down and let out a guttural sigh of long-simmering anxiety leaving my body. It had taken three months to close the account.

Father's fear of the future and the internet

Repaired piggy bank
My father is petrified of the future. He has sweaty, terrifying nightmares in which he loses everything he has worked so hard to put away. He reads articles about hackers and digital security, but he doesn’t understand all of it, so he sends the links to me. When he was told to buy shirts for his work uniform through PayPal, he couldn’t bring himself to do it, so I bought them for him. My dad, the bravest, smartest man I know, is now scared of the internet.
“It’s as if they took my time and money just because they could,” he said to me. “They’ll never be held accountable, ever.” (He’s right. Most scammers never get caught.)
It’s very likely that my mother’s brain injury made her more vulnerable to predation. Studies have shown that people with mild cognitive impairment may be more susceptible to scams, particularly if they struggle with episodic memory (check) and perception speed (double check). But that doesn’t make her as exemplary as you might think. The ageing process is not kind to most brains—shrinking the prefrontal cortex that helps orchestrate thoughts and weakening neural connections.
It’s a fact that older adults, who have had more time to accumulate assets, lose the most money to scammers. In this respect, my mother is very normal.
But it’s the mental and emotional fallout that worries me now. Recently, I spoke with Carrie Kerskie, a private investigator who works on internet fraud cases. Kerskie says she’s seen clients who, like my mother, blame themselves, and that the internalised shame can twist into something more sinister—paranoia, broken relationships, even suicide.
“Everyone thinks it’s just money,” she says. “It’s huge psychologically, because people think How did I fall for this?” Kerskie says victims worry obsessively that the bad guys will show up at their door and try to hurt them. They can’t sleep. They stop eating. “A lot of times, they have to take time off work to try to recover from this, and then they lose their jobs. It’s a horrible downward spiral.”
I flash back to my mother’s haunting words: “I did a stupid thing. I’m so stupid.” Like so many of us, she assumed a scam is something aimed at the gullible, something to “fall for” rather than a crime with a victim and a perpetrator.
“She didn’t ‘fall for it,’” Kerskie says firmly. “She was manipulated.”

Doing the right thing and moving forward together

After I moved into an apartment a two-hour drive from my parents’ home, I made a quick trip out to see them. I was helping them sort through the affairs of my recently deceased uncle, precisely the sort of thing I had come back to do. While we were digging through stacks of his papers, my dad mentioned, “You know, another scammer called your mama.” My head snapped up. “She did the right thing, though,” he said. “She hung up on them and called me.”
"Another scammer called your mama. She did the right thing. She hung up on them and called me"
I turned to look at my mother, who was at the kitchen table, updating the to-do list she uses to shore up her memory. She looked at me and we smiled at each other. These days, our conversations tend to be short. We rely on different languages to express our love.
I don’t know that she’ll hang up the next time a perpetrator calls. But as I watched her dig through a pile of paperwork, I felt deep in my bones that the only way forward was together. 

This story originally appeared in Wired
Banner photo illustration: Klawe Rzeczy 
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