Bitcoin scam victim reveals details of extortion
by Mick Rhodes | firstname.lastname@example.org
As phone scams go, it seemed on its face to be garden variety. A 55-year-old Claremont woman got a call on her cell phone from an out-of-state area code. The man on the other end told her he was from “federal depository revenue,” and was quite convincing.
“He said my social security had been breached, and I had gotten identity theft, needed to get my money out of the bank and needed to put it into a different account and the next day it would be put back into a safe account,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
Ninety minutes later her entire life’s savings—$11,000—was gone.
It was a perfect storm of an unwitting victim, a sizable sum of liquid cash, and a criminal gang capable of a new, sophisticated technological sleight of hand called “line trapping.”
Line trapping works thusly: a scammer calls someone and tells them they have been a victim of identity theft and must call police to confirm. The victim then hangs up, or puts the call on hold, and makes the call. But the scammers actually remain connected to the person’s phone line and reroute the call to someone in on the scam, who impersonates the police, telling them to go along with the criminals.
For the Claremont victim, it began about 2 p.m. on Monday, July 13.
The man on the line who claimed to represent the nonexistent federal agency told her to stay on the phone while he called “Officer Vander Veen” of the Claremont Police Department “and made them aware of the situation.” A couple minutes later he was back, tossing around the name of CPD Chief Shelley Vander Veen, but again as “Officer Vander Veen.”
Scared, confused and sensing something was amiss, she told the man to hang on while she called the Claremont Police Department to speak to Chief Vander Veen.
She put the scammer on hold and dialed CPD’s number. That’s when the scammers re-routed that call back to their accomplices.
The victim said that the woman posing as Chief Vander Veen was emphatic that she comply.
“I said, ‘Is this a real thing?’ And [the imposter] said ‘Absolutely. You need to do exactly as he tells you, because if you don’t do it now, within the hour we’re going to have a warrant out for your arrest.’ And I said, ‘Why would have you have a warrant out for my arrest when I’m the victim here?’ And she said, ‘Just do what he tells you to do.’”
Terrified, she followed the scammer’s instructions: go to her bank and withdraw everything, then drive to a specific Bitcoin machine in Upland to deposit the cash.
“I’d never heard of a Bitcoin machine,” she said. “He told me it was a government machine, and the closest one was on Grove at a place called Mike’s Liquor.”
The man then sent her a text with a QR code. He told her to have the Bitcoin machine scan the code, which she later realized must have contained the scammer’s banking information.
“And he told me to put in every single bill, bill by bill, hundred by hundred,” she said. After depositing $11,000—110 hundred dollar bills—she was done.
“Then he said to stay on the phone with him until I got back home. So I did.”
The man told her he would call her in the morning, and that “somebody from the police department, someone from social security and the U.S. Marshal are going to be at your house tomorrow morning.”
The next morning she dialed the phone number of the man who scammed her. It was no longer in service, and the code that had been sent via text had also disappeared.
After trying on her own for weeks to retreive her lost savings, she hired a lawyer, who on August 6 helped her file a claim against the city in an effort to recoup her money. Carl Warren and Company, Claremont’s insurance claims management firm, sent her a letter that day informing her it was looking into the claim.
“When our investigation is complete, we will advise you as to whether or not we can recommend settlement,” the document read.
On August 11 the city responded by mail, denying the claim.
Despite all evidence pointing to a line trapping scam, the victim remains convinced she was actually speaking to Chief Vander Veen on July 13.
“I know [Chief Vander Veen],” the victim said. “I’ve talked to her before. It was definitely her. I know it’s impossible. It’s impossible for everybody. Everybody says the same thing, ‘How could she have said that?’ But she did. It was 100 percent her.”
Reached by phone, Chief Vander Veen said she was unable to comment on the case due to the possibility of future litigation, but Claremont City Manager Tara Schultz had no such restraints.
“I am certain she did not speak with her,” Ms. Schultz said. “The chief would not do anything like that.”
The victim has had sleepless nights wondering how or why she was targeted.
“I have no idea, and I would love to know,” she said. “That’s my biggest question, why me?”
She had recently been laid off from her job, so to be completely cleaned out in 90 minutes, during a pandemic, was particularly painful.
“I’m in a horrible position,” she said. “It’s been emotionally draining and it’s just a horrible, horrible thing to have happen. I feel very violated.”
She’s currently looking for a another lawyer who will take the case on contingency.
The Federal Trade Commission maintains a list of scam warnings at www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/scam-alerts.
The overarching consensus regarding all scam warnings is to trust your instincts; if something feels off, it likely is. Don’t answer calls from blocked or unknown numbers, let them go to voicemail. Always be cautious of anyone asking for personal information. Do not respond to an email, hang up the phone, or don’t reply to a text if you are suspicious in any way that it may be coming from a bad actor.
You should always call a trusted phone number from a separate line—one other than the one you received the call on—you are in doubt. Also, wait to make any sort of follow up call, as recent evidence suggests line trapping technology has a time limit of just several minutes.
And if someone representing a government agency or reputable corporation asks for cash, Bitcoin, pre-loaded debit cards or any other form of “alternative” payment, do not comply. Hang up and contact the organization directly or check your account status by logging on to a secure website.
Claremonters who suspect they are being scammed should call the police at (909) 399-5411, again on a separate line if it’s happening at that moment, to report suspicious activity, or come to the station at 570 W. Bonita Ave. to make a report in person.