Coming up to help others: Islander Heather Lee shares how she lost everything

It’s called a scam game for a reason.

Thieves build a sense of trust in potential victims, claiming that they are looking out for their best interests and genuinely care about the people they are about to steal.

That’s what happened to Heather Lee for several weeks this summer, when she lost all of her savings in a scam. But she is far from the only victim – a Harris poll report indicates that 59.4 million Americans were victims of phone / internet scams last year. Detective / Sergeant Jack Thilberg said the Shelter Island Police Department receives information about scams over the phone / internet on a weekly basis.

She may be one of the many victims of criminals, but Ms Lee is the rare person who has shown up to discuss what happened to her, Police Chief Jim Read said. He praised her for speaking out to help others avoid the traps and traps sophisticated criminals rely on to steal from unsuspecting people.

At a meeting at Shelter Island Police Headquarters, Ms Lee, who is the island’s school bus driver, met with Chief Read and Staff Sgt. Thilberg to discuss what happened, how to avoid becoming the target of fraud, and to take stock of the criminal proceedings against those who victimized her.

“If I can help a person,” Ms. Lee said, so as not to be taken as she was, she believes she will be doing a public service to a community that has come together to help her. A GoFundMe page, posted by Peggy DiSunno, is up and running for her, asking for donations. To date, over $ 30,000 has been raised. The page address is gofundme.com/f/help-heather-heal-from-a-huge-scam.

Shelter Island Lions Club Treasurer Frank Vecchio was also present at the meeting at police headquarters. The Lions, said Mr. Vecchio, are helping Ms. Lee. Soon there will be a button on the Lions webpage —shelterislandlions.org – that you can click to make a donation through PayPal. Checks can be sent to Shelter Island Lions Club, PO Box 760, Shelter Island, NY 11964 USA. Every dollar donated will go to Ms. Lee.

Stuff of the criminal trade

The fraud against Ms Lee, who lives alone and rents an apartment on the island, began in July, when one day, while checking her emails and checking websites, a banner popped up on her screen. saying to contact Microsoft immediately and gave him a phone number. When she called the number, a man informed her that her bank account had been hacked and thieves were going to withdraw $ 20,000 to be used by players.

He was told not to tell anyone about the scheme, especially bank staff who might be involved in the fraud. She was instructed to withdraw a certain amount of money from her account and send it via Federal Express to an address in California. The aim was to have the funds deposited elsewhere and to be “encrypted” against the hackers who had gained access to his account.

Believing that the appellant was part of a team that would help protect her savings, Ms. Lee withdrew the money and mailed it.

Then began weeks of “going to all branches” of her bank in the area, she said, withdrawing more money from the management of the crooks and sending the money to addresses in California, USA. Texas and Nevada. She has sent and received thousands of text messages from thieves, Sgt. Thilberg said, showing a 250-page binder of copies of the texts – 30 to a page – that Ms Lee sent and received.

The texts have become personal, such as “How are you today, Ms. Lee?” And urging him to send in a new batch of funds “before you eat breakfast.” They would ask her how her choral practice had been, but always adding a sense of urgency to getting the tasks done so the team could help her protect her savings.

This is a common feature of fraudulent schemes, Chief Read said, of criminals offering a false sense of security, even friendship, building trust and gaining the victim’s trust through personal contact and seemingly sincere communications. When a man replaced the first caller, claiming his predecessor had a car accident, he elicited sympathy from Ms Lee, which showed how skillfully the scam game was progressing, police said.

It gets right to the point, Sgt. Thilberg said, “where they make you lie to others,” as happened to Ms. Lee, who did not respond honestly to bank tellers who asked her why she was withdrawing large amounts of money. Again, she was told her bank could be part of a group that wanted to rob her.

It wasn’t just money, but Ms. Lee was asked to send gift cards and gift card numbers to be used at businesses such as Walgreen’s, Nike, and others. The use of gift cards is a “red flag,” said Chief Read, confirming that you are in the midst of a criminal conspiracy.

There was also the possibility of a one-on-one meeting, which thankfully never happened.

In the end, with her savings wiped out, Ms. Lee realized what had happened. A first feeling of embarrassment was overcome when she contacted the police department, and the sergeant. Thilberg immediately opened an investigation. Chief Read said embarrassment is the reason more frauds are not exposed. People are losing money and being mortified, but they shouldn’t be, the chief said, because many are good, trustworthy people who don’t know how scams work.

Fraud robs people of amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars, the chief said, to an islander who lost $ 300,000.

Track down thieves

The department is “in depth in the investigation,” Chief Read said, and is showing significant progress. He expects subpoenas to be issued soon by the Suffolk County District Attorney.

Sgt. Thilberg said there were videos being reviewed of suspects cashing in on gift cards sent by Ms Lee and purchasing goods, including expensive electronics for resale. Identification is ongoing, but it’s difficult in the era of COVID with masked individuals.

“It’s an organized structure,” Sgt. Thilberg added, “not just a few people”.

While it is possible to bring criminals to justice, “Heather is not getting her money back,” Chief Read said.

He reiterated that if you feel like a victim, immediately contact the police department – 631-749-0600 – and / or someone you trust. Don’t click on unfamiliar web addresses or make phone calls to unknown numbers prompting you to call immediately.

Criminals pose as representatives of legitimate organizations such as PSEG, Det. said Thilberg. Scammers, masquerading as employees, will tell people to send money immediately or all electricity will be cut off. The IRS is used by crooks, who will claim that a person owes back taxes and will be jailed if they do not pay a certain amount immediately.

The hope, Chief Read said, is that islanders will become aware of the thieves lurking in the shadow of the Internet, “and we won’t be sitting in this room” with another person who has been robbed.

Ms. Lee said she “is fine, I am fine” and thanked the police department and the community for stepping forward to help. “I can pay bills. I can go to the grocery store, ”she said. “It has been a learning experience for me, and I hope I can help spread the word. “

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