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A 3-hour phone call that brought her to tears: Imposter scams cost Americans billions

Valeria Haedo, a visual artist based in New York City, was caught off guard when she was targeted in a complex phone scam.
Valeria Haedo
Valeria Haedo, a visual artist based in New York City, was caught off guard when she was targeted in a complex phone scam.

It was a Monday in the middle of the day when Valeria Haedo got a phone call from a number she didn't recognize. She doesn't normally pick those up, but she did that day. The caller said his name was Officer Robert Daniels from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and he had a warrant for her arrest.

He told Haedo she could verify him by Googling his name and department. She did, and it checked out. But what Haedo didn't realize in that moment is she'd just been targeted in an intricate scam. She was kept on the phone for more than three hours and eventually brought to tears.

The scam is known as an imposter scam and is the top fraud in the U.S. right now. It involves the perpetrator impersonating an authority figure and using scare tactics to reel in victims. While these scams have been around forever, they've become more believable because con artists use real names of law enforcement officers that show up with caller ID from an actual office and even local accents.

The Federal Trade Commission says nearly 200,000 people have been targeted this year alone. And last year, people lost a total of $2.6 billion to imposter scams.

"What is particularly pernicious about the imposter scams is that there's unfortunately a relatively high rate of people who are duped by them," said Lois Greisman, associate director for the FTC's division of marketing practices. "When people think the government is calling you, there's a very understandable reaction to be concerned."

When Haedo Googled Officer Daniels that day, she found his bio on Customs and Border Protection's website and his listed phone number matched the one on her caller ID. He told her the arrest warrant was based on a package he'd intercepted from Mexico that was addressed to her.

"In that package, they found narcotics, they found cash, driver's licenses, and fake Social Security numbers," Haedo said. "All under my name."

She was in a state of shock.

"I was like, 'this feels like from a movie,'" she said.

Con artists can now find information on their victims in real-time and use online tools to impersonate real people and increasingly using new technology, like caller ID spoofing and voice cloning.

"That makes it very difficult for us to determine, in the heat of the moment, what's genuine and what's fake," said Alan Castel, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "They prey on our insecurities. So, unfortunately, scammers are like psychologists in the wild."

Law enforcement agencies across the country are warning about imposter scams. The Federal Communications Commission has made YouTube videos and tip sheets for people to learn how to spot caller ID spoofing. The agency says it's best to hang up and call back.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the FBI have also posted online warnings saying they'll never call and ask for money. And if someone does fall victim to a scam, to report it to the FBI and the FTC.

A call from the U.S. Marshal Service and finally, the NYPD

After Haedo was accused of organizing a shipment of narcotics and cash across an international border, the allegations started getting more complicated.

The fake CBP officer said he'd found two illegal properties in her name in Texas, along with illegal bank accounts. She adamantly denied everything. Haedo lives in New York City and has no connections to Texas or Mexico. The caller told her she'd have to talk to the U.S. Marshal Service.

She was put on hold and connected to another law enforcement official, this time Officer Thomas Michael O'Connor from the U.S. Marshals in Texas. Again, when she Googled him, she easily found his bio in the right department. His phone number online matched the one on her caller ID. And O'Connor had a deep Texan accent.

"That's why I believed that this was something real," Haedo said. "They really took me in a trip of darkness where I was imagining the police coming here, arresting me for all this illegal stuff."

Then the caller changed his stance. He seemed to believe Haedo when she said she didn't commit any crimes. He told her it looked like she was a victim of identity theft. That meant she urgently needed to protect her identity and secure her bank account.

She was then connected to the New York Police Department from the precinct down the block from her apartment. Again, the name and phone number seemed legitimate and this caller had a New York accent.

Brady McCarron, a real U.S. Marshal, said he started hearing about this imposter scam last September. Now, he said, 90 percent of the calls he gets are from scam victims who've been targeted with this same script.

"Unfortunately, it's all over the country," McCarron said. "There is no target audience, everyone across the board is getting hit by this scam."

McCarron said he gets six to seven calls per day and hears from at least one person per week who hands over money. One woman told him she lost $30,000 dollars. And another said they lost $10,000.

"Those are the phone calls I hate to get," McCarron said. "And it tears my heart apart to hear these stories."

Take out your money and deposit it into crypto

When Haedo was connected to the fake NYPD officer, he told her to go to the bank and take out the maximum amount of money allowed in one day. "They would send me a QR image with a code for a digital currency ATM to have all my money secured temporarily," Haedo said.

That was the moment Haedo felt something was off. The idea of dealing with digital currency made her uneasy and she refused. She asked for a police officer to escort her to the bank, but they said they couldn't do that.

The more she pushed back, the more urgent they became. They told her if she didn't act that day, her bank account would be immediately frozen and she wouldn't be able to access her money for anywhere between six months and three years.

"I got very nervous and I cried," Haedo said. "How do I even trust anything at this point?"

After three exhausting hours, Haedo hung up. She didn't do what they wanted, even though she was scared and part of her believed their story.

When she woke up the next morning, her bank account wasn't frozen. All her money was there. That's when she finally realized she narrowly escaped a scam.

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Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.