By Sarah Krouse
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on November 21, 2019.
The FBI agent sounded official on the phone. He gave Nina Belis his badge number and a story about how her identity had been compromised. She gave him her life’s savings.
For most Americans, robocalls are an annoyance. For Ms. Belis, an oncology nurse in her 60s, a law-enforcement impersonation scam that appeared to have started with a robocall drew her into financial losses that sapped her family’s nest egg and derailed her retirement.
The scale of her loss — nearly $340,000 — and the ease with which the money was moved out of her accounts show why scam calls persist. They work, even on people who think they would never fall for one.
The caller preyed on what psychologists describe as a habitual reliance on people in authority, and kept Ms. Belis in a state of isolation and heightened emotion to cloud her judgment. He told Ms. Belis her Social Security number had been stolen and that crimes had been committed under her name, and persuaded her to transfer assets to accounts he controlled on the pretext of protecting the funds.
He coached the New York-area resident on how to satisfy compliance questions at financial institutions as she moved the funds and kept her on the phone for hours at a time.
Law-enforcement, telecom executives and psychologists who have reviewed Ms. Belis’s case say it is unique given how much money was lost. It also has all the hallmarks of government impersonation scams that have snared thousands of other consumers.
In the first nine months of the year, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 139,000 reports of fraud in which people claimed to be from the Social Security Administration, with losses totaling nearly $30 million.
In New York City alone, consumers lost $5.8 million in 523 Social Security Administration impostor scams between January and late October, according to the New York Police Department. Many of those used law-enforcement impostors to help facilitate the fraud.
The department began tracking that type of theft in greater detail this year for the first time because reports of them spiked. Victims in New York City ranged in age from teenagers to octogenarians.
The uptick in such theft speaks to a dangerous truth for consumers: It’s inexpensive and easy for fraudsters to blast out thousands of internet-based phone calls, and hard for law enforcement to trace those calls back to their origins. Even calls from overseas can be made to appear to be from a local area code.
Scammers benefit from the sheer volume of low-cost calls they can make with web technology, which has become ubiquitous in the past decade, as well as a trove of information on consumers’ email and physical addresses online, and on the dark web from data breaches, according to cybersecurity and law-enforcement officials.
Banks are required to have procedures in place to flag suspect transactions to regulators, but they have some flexibility to set those parameters. And the coaching many scammers give their victims provides them with plausible answers to questions raised. In general, there are few limits to a customer’s ability to move funds at will.
Ms. Belis knew about phone-based scams, but thought they had to do with fake insurance companies or callers who claimed a relative was in the hospital. “I never heard about things like what happened with me,” Ms. Belis said.
Ms. Belis had just started her morning shift at an ambulatory care center when she got a voice mail on Feb. 27, a Wednesday. It was from someone who claimed to be part of the “attorney general’s Social Security office” and said there was an issue with her identity.
“I was terrified, of course,” she said, and quickly called back. She gave the operator her name, and she was connected with the man posing as an FBI agent. He verified Ms. Belis’s name, address and email address and said her identity had been stolen.
Crimes ranging from drug deals to illicit money transfers had been committed under her name, the man said, and while he knew she wasn’t responsible, she would have to cooperate with the FBI and help with their investigation or be arrested. The agency would help her erase her current Social Security number and set up a new one. The combination of threats and assurances of help is common and convincing, law-enforcement officials and psychologists say.
To do that, he told her she would have to move her money out of existing accounts to ones he said were protected by the government or her assets would be frozen permanently.
A few years from retirement, Ms. Belis had emigrated from Eastern Europe, where she was a doctor, about 20 years ago with her husband, who had been a surgeon there. She said she was fearful her savings would become inaccessible.
The scammer asked Ms. Belis about her financial assets, and she told him where her accounts were and the amounts they held.
That conversation set off a string of phone calls and text messages between Ms. Belis and the scammer that spanned 50 of the next 72 hours, and extended further into the following week, records from her wireless carrier show.
The voice mail that started the scam came at a difficult time for Ms. Belis. Her husband was recovering from cancer treatment and one of her daughters had recently suffered a stillbirth.
“What’s being played on is a habitual or socially imposed reliance on people in authority,” Stephen Lea, professor emeritus at Exeter University and a psychologist who has studied fraud, said of law-enforcement-impersonation scams. “That uniform or that representation elicits trust in a situation where you might be less likely to trust.”
In some such frauds, scammers give victims phone numbers of accomplices who they say are local law-enforcement agents to help them navigate the process, sometimes using real officers’ names. That added verification contributes to their believability.
The scammer told Ms. Belis to remain on the phone, leave work and not discuss the problem with anyone.
She worried about her patients, but asked her manager for permission to leave, staying on the phone with her maroon folding phone case closed over the face of the smartphone while it remained connected.
Doug Shadel, state director in Washington for AARP, an organization that educates and assists retired people, spent more than a decade as an investigator in the state attorney general’s office and said criminals in theft cases capitalize on pulling victims into the “ether” — a mental state of heightened emotion, whether it be fear or excitement, that clouds rational judgment.
The scammer told her to make sure she had her driver’s license, pen and paper and phone charger, then told her to get in a cab.
Ms. Belis kept receipts for her taxi rides and an eventual two-night hotel stay and texted them to her scammer at his instruction. He would submit them to a courthouse for reimbursement, he said, a lie that gave her comfort he was who he claimed to be.
Her first stop was a Manhattan credit union where she and her husband had accounts including certificates of deposit.
Stand outside the bank, the scammer told Ms. Belis, don’t talk on the phone in the branch and don’t hang up. Send him a photo of the transfer request. If the teller asks, say the money is for apartment renovations.
Law-enforcement and bank officials said it can be difficult for banks to strike a balance between allowing consumers to do what they want with their money and asking questions to help them avoid scams, particularly when they are coached on how to answer compliance questions.
Many bank efforts to fight fraud take place after a transaction already goes through. In general, banks are required to report transactions of $10,000 or more. They must also report suspected money laundering or other crimes.
Many banks flag suspicious transactions of more than $5,000, and they must report certain types of activity that are atypical for a given customer. International transfers are typically blocked if the recipient is on a sanctioned list but otherwise usually proceed, even if they involve large amounts of money.
Ms. Belis initiated two transfers that February afternoon to accounts given to her by the scammer at Bank of America that totaled $40,450, her financial records show.
The scammer told Ms. Belis she was being watched by another agent and, as the bank closed for the day, instructed her to rent a hotel room. She told her husband she had to stay the night at work.
Instructions resumed early the next morning. The scammer told her to take a taxi to a credit union where she had an account in New Jersey.
She waited for an hour outside the bank for instructions on where to send the next chunk of money — an account at Panamanian bank Banistmo SA. Ms. Belis bought the taxi driver a cup of coffee and doughnut while they waited.
After sending $19,950 from the New Jersey credit union to the Panamanian account, Ms. Belis headed to Citibank, where she sent $30,500 to a Bank of America account — a different account number from those used the day before but carrying one of the same names.
Her family, meanwhile, was growing worried. She had never spent a night at work and hadn’t been in touch that day with her elderly mother, whom she called daily.
Ms. Belis asked the scammer for permission to call family members, and he told her that her cellphone was wiretapped. She should only use her phone to call him. She stayed another night in the hotel.
The next morning, Friday, brought what appeared to be good news: The agent said he had started to cancel the arrest warrant and the process would be complete once the transfers went through. He asked her to stay at the hotel for another two nights.
Ms. Belis said she became angry and so upset that she shook and asked to go back to her family. She told him she would rather be arrested than stay away from home longer.
The scammer eventually agreed but said she must not discuss the Social Security number issue.
When she returned home, her husband met her at the bus stop and said she looked pale. He had called her co-worker to ask if spending the night at work was normal, and the colleague said no, but he trusted his wife. He thought about going to see her, and then decided that she would likely be home in the morning.
Inside their apartment, Ms. Belis told him her identity had been stolen. While he had some doubts, he believed her and saw that she was scared. She didn’t tell him anything about moving money out of their accounts.
He told her that law-enforcement officials were responsible for investigating the identity theft she described, but she wanted to clear her name. His wife continued to receive calls from a person she said was investigating her case.
Later, at The Wall Street Journal’s request, executives at robocall-blocking services that study telephone network traffic looked at records tied to the phone number Ms. Belis’s caller used. The number was linked to other user-reported scams around the same time, they said.
Jim Tyrrell, senior director of product marketing at TNS Inc., said his company, which works with large carriers, detected about 100 calls from the number in February and a smaller number since then. That is a sign that the number was used for what is called “snowshoe spamming,” he said, in which scammers originate a small number of calls from a large group of phone numbers — spreading out calls to avoid detection, the way a snowshoe spreads a person’s weight out to make it possible to walk on top of snow.
The calls in question appear to have originated in India, said a spokesman for AT&T, Ms. Belis’s carrier at the time, and the number had previously been reported to law-enforcement officials.
Internet-calling technology helps facilitate another tactic popular with scammers: “neighbor spoofing,” in which scammers spoof or fake the number appearing on your smartphone screen to make it look like the caller is close to you. That makes many people more likely to answer the phone.
The number used to scam Ms. Belis was disconnected on Sept. 18 after the Journal notified the company that controlled it that the phone number had been used in a scam. Legitimate companies that sell phone numbers and low-cost internet-based calling services can sometimes be used by scammers to acquire the loads of numbers needed for fraud. Ride-sharing services, school-closure robocalls and businesses often legitimately use the services.
Over the weekend, the scam against Ms. Belis continued. The person called her to ask about her retirement savings, and she filled him in with the details. He told her she had to transfer that money to the government-protected accounts, too.
She needed her husband’s authorization to withdraw those funds and persuaded him to sign, telling him that she would go to jail if she didn’t move the money. She told him about the transfers from the prior week but didn’t show him the documents, so he didn’t know some of the funds had been sent to Panama.
A customer-service representative at her retirement-account administrator asked why she was withdrawing the $273,000 in her account, but the scammer had prepared her to answer questions. She said she was using it to open a business — the fake agent had made her believe that everything about the purported identity-theft investigation had to remain secret. She paid more than $50,000 in taxes when she withdrew the retirement funds on Tuesday, and transferred the rest to her account at Citibank.
On Wednesday, Ms. Belis sent $190,000 from her Citibank account to a second account at the Panama bank Banistmo. She believed the ordeal was over.
After dinner on Sunday, she thought the transaction had cleared and told her husband she was feeling better. He asked to see the paperwork, and she showed it to him. When he saw that the money had been moved to a bank in Panama, alarm bells rang.
“I lost my speech,” he said.
He realized it was fraud, and the couple went to see one of their daughters. They called Citibank that night to stop the transfer, but the fraud department was closed.
They went to the police and filed a report at 8:30 p.m. It was 12 days since she first received the scammer’s voice mail. Ms. Belis’s losses, including taxes she paid when withdrawing her retirement funds, the banking fees and hotel and taxi costs, totaled $337,105.
A Citibank spokesman said the bank encourages customers to be alert to confidence schemes. “In this instance, the beneficiary bank reported that the recipient received the funds on the same day they were sent,” he said. Customers who receive unsolicited and suspicious requests should file reports with law enforcement and contact the bank, he said.
Self Reliance New York Federal Credit Union didn’t respond to requests for comment. Val Bogattchouk, chief executive of Nova UA Federal Credit Union, the New Jersey credit union, said: “Our credit union is very concerned about the ever increasing frequency of fraudulent financial schemes impacting unknowing individuals, including a member of our institution,” adding the credit union works to educate its staff and customers to be vigilant and encourages international regulators to investigate and pursue scammers.
A spokesman for TIAA, the retirement-account administrator, said “customer security is a top priority, and we have robust processes in place to authenticate clients’ transactions.”
A spokeswoman for Banistmo declined to comment.
Ms. Belis said the FBI and NYPD have so far helped her recover about 8% of her money, and she recently learned she may be eligible for part of an additional $10,000 that law-enforcement officials recovered.
The family is in touch with a Citibank manager who works on security and investigations after emailing top executives about the scam. Law-enforcement officials have told her it is unlikely she will get back additional assets, particularly money sent overseas. The FBI declined to comment on the investigation.
The family has changed Ms. Belis’s phone number and purchased a robocall-blocking app. The police told them victims of fraud are far more likely to be approached by new scammers, and to fall for fraud again.
Ms. Belis said she is embarrassed but decided to share her story to help others avoid becoming victims. She had hoped to help raise her grandchildren and travel in retirement but knows those things are no longer possible. She will have to keep working.
“I know my kids won’t leave us alone, but I don’t want to use their money,” she said. “I pray to be able to work full time as long as possible.”
Write to Sarah Krouse at firstname.lastname@example.org