COBB COUNTY, Ga. — The news about a University of Georgia student being scammed out of $30,000 during a 10-hour phone conversation was met with surprise, skepticism and scoffing from many people.
To some, it seemed impossible. How does someone fall for a robocall scam in 2019, something seemingly everyone has received and been hard-wired to ignore?
A 50-year-old businesswoman from Cobb County used to feel the same way, but after she fell for nearly the exact same scam call, she feels sympathy for the 20-year-old UGA student from Alpharetta.
During an 11½-hour call involving two people claiming to be federal agents, Karen Faulkner ended up purchasing $35,500 worth of gift cards to send the scammers — money she likely will never recover.
"I feel bad for (the UGA student)," she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I understand what he's going through."
Both scams started with a robocall claiming their Social Security numbers had been compromised, leading to their identities being stolen and used for crimes.
What followed was a complex web of lies utilizing public information to dissuade doubt, threats of frozen bank accounts and several scare tactics.
Faulkner described the experience as being brainwashed, fearing her livelihood was hanging by a thread and she had to comply.
Her case is now in the hands of the FBI, who receive about 800 to 1,200 internet crime complaints each day, about 20 to 25 of which are from Georgia.
"Don't ever say, ‘Please, that'll never happen to me,'" Faulkner said. "Don't ever say that, because it can happen to you."
‘So darn believable'
Just before 10 a.m. on Nov. 5, Faulkner received a call from Medford, Oregon.
As soon as she picked up, an automated voice said her identity had been stolen and she needed to press "one" to speak to a U.S. Social Security Administration representative.
When she did that, a man claiming to be a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent began speaking to her. After giving her a false badge number, he set up the scheme.
Her identity had supposedly been stolen and had been used by someone to purchase two houses and Toyota Corollas in El Paso, Texas, along with seven bank accounts in her name. Both of the vehicles had been seized for containing drugs, and she had active drug trafficking and money laundering warrants out for her arrest.
At this point, Faulkner said she was still skeptical, but the man began to ask her questions using information from public records, beginning with her current home address, her business' name and even her prior surnames.
"I go by my middle name, but he knew (my first name) and my prior last name from my first marriage, which is part of what made this all so darn believable" she said.
Faulkner was then transferred to someone who identified himself as Emmerson Buie Jr., who in real life is the FBI special agent in charge of the Chicago field office. When she questioned how she could trust him, the scammer had her look up the agent's name online, leading her to several photos of him in news articles surrounded by identifiable names like James Comey.
"During this whole process, he's throwing out all the right words: investigation, privacy laws, criminal charges, felony and warrant for my arrest," Faulkner said.
Now that their hooks were in, the scammers were ready to get paid.
Gift cards or government vouchers?
The two most common forms of telephone scams are impostor and debt collection schemes, the FBI said, with identity theft being third. In the two most common types, victims are asked to fork over bank account information or pay directly.
Faulkner said those types of scams are the ones she knew she could identify, but she wasn't expecting to be told by a faux FBI agent to purchase gift cards to exchange the numbers and PINs for so-called government vouchers. If she didn't, she was told her bank accounts would be frozen.
"My biggest concern was my business, which I opened two and a half months ago," she said. "I was worried that money was going to be frozen. That scared me."
She was sent around Marietta to make 16 transactions for gift cards, which were worth $100 to $500 apiece. Those cards were to places including Sephora, Nordstrom and GameStop, according to receipts she provided to The AJC.
The FBI said gift cards can easily be resold on secondary websites since they "essentially function as a cash equivalent but don't necessarily raise the same suspicions with victims as someone asking for cash."
When checking out at stores such as Target, Staples and Whole Foods, she said she had to make up reasons for the unusual purchases to get manager approval.
"I deserve an Emmy for doing all that — clearly I pulled it off. I hate that I pulled it off so well," Faulkner said. "They would say, ‘This is a lot of gift cards,' and I would tell them it was Christmas gifts for my employees or bonuses, and they believed it."
After nearly eight hours of driving around town and reading gift card numbers over the phone to her scammer, she arrived home to find four patrol cars in her driveway. Her husband had called the cops, worried since he hadn't been able to contact her all day.
The scammer had told her she was being watched closely by authorities and could not tell anyone about what she was doing. She wouldn't even tell police about what was going on for fear of retribution or arrest.
The Cobb County Sheriff's Office incident report notes that she wouldn't tell authorities at first until she realized she had been scammed.
Once she realized what had happened, she called her bank the next morning, which confirmed the dour news.
"(The bank employee) said, ‘I'm so sorry. Since you did the transactions, you're liable. There's no recourse. You're not getting your money back,"' Faulkner said.
Identifying red flags
A panicked visit to the sheriff's office helped put her case on record, but she was told there wasn't much local authorities could do about international scams.
Sheriff's spokesman Glenn Daniel confirmed that her case is an active investigation, and he said their investigators "do not discuss our investigative techniques publicly."
"We ask citizens be vigilant at all times when they receive a telephone or email solicitation, especially with the holiday season approaching," he said.
Faulkner was directed to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), where her report will join hundreds of thousands of others. The agency said the complaints are analyzed, categorized and bundled with similar cases, if applicable. Those that aren't investigated remain in their records "for analysis and potential future investigation."
For out-of-country scams, the FBI has an IC3 Recovery Asset Team and 63 Legal Attache offices in U.S. embassies that work with foreign law enforcement agencies to attempt to recover fraudulently obtained funds.
At the moment, Faulkner said she doesn't have much hope in recovering the money. While losing it hurts her and her business, she said she hopes her story helps other victims "feel validated," including the UGA student. The student declined The AJC's request for comment for this story.
The FBI said the best course of action when receiving a potentially fraudulent call from someone claiming to be an agent is to get their name, field office and tell them you'll call them back. Then look up that field office's phone number, call and ask the dispatcher to transfer you to that agent.
You can also request to only talk if you can meet at an FBI field office, where the agent's credentials can be seen, the FBI said. The same tactics can be used with local law enforcement agencies to verify they're legitimate. Also, no law enforcement agency will say you can't hang up over financial or fraudulent matters like these, and gift cards are not a suitable currency the government will accept, the FBI said.
Since the incident, Faulkner said she's continued to receive scam calls, including the same robocall.
She now ignores them.
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