JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) - You've worked hard for your money. But scam artists around the world work hard every day to take your cash by tricking you into believing something that isn't true.
They call you on the phone, and they creep into your home through your computer.
And a News Channel 11 investigation reveals scam artists are now targeting people here in the Tri-Cities with unprecedented levels of deception and psychological manipulation.
Just ask Debbie Dobbs of Washington County, TN.
When she retired from her long-time job as the Director of the Washington County / Johnson City Animal Shelter, Dobbs looked forward to a major stress reduction. "I was ready to enjoy life and just spend more time with my family," Dobbs said, surrounded by her adopted dogs and her husband in their home near Gray, Tennessee.
But Dobbs said her stress level recently spiked when she logged on the her home computer.
"I noticed a pop up that kept saying ‘your computer has a virus... you're being warned,' Dobbs said. "The warning said Microsoft and Windows is telling you that you have a virus, and if you don't get a protection on here it's going to destroy your computer."
The warning looked legit, so Dobbs said she called the number on her screen.
"They told me the reason that you received that message is that you had a virus."
Convinced she was in trouble, Dobbs called the phone number on the warning and purchased an antivirus protection program offered by the man who answered the phone. In the process, she allowed him to access to her computer and perform what he called "safety checks" as part of the offered antivirus protection service.
"He sounded legitimate," she said. "He knew more than I did about computers."
Dobbs says for the next few weeks, the same company called asking if her computer was okay, repeatedly assuring her she could cancel at any time.
But, then she got a different kind of phone call, and Dobbs said what happened next shook her to her core.
"I was making dinner when I got the phone call," she said. "The man said the company that I bought a virus protection from was switching from Microsoft to Apple, so he needed to give me a refund and take it off my computer."
What followed was a tension-filled and confusing story that, in reality, was an act of masterful deception. The caller convinced Dobbs to log into her bank account and give him access to make the "refund."
"But then his tone became dominating. Controlling." Eventually, the caller convinced Dobbs he had control of her bank account, demanding she stay on the phone while she followed his instructions. "He said, ‘You will do what I ask you to do or I will pocket your money and walk away,'" Dobbs remembered.
Without her knowing it, the caller had captured an image of Dobbs' banking account, manipulated the numbers to make it look empty, and then manipulated the numbers to make it look like he'd deposited thousands of dollars into the account.
The man who later admitted he was calling from India told Dobbs she had to get a prepaid money card and transfer the overage to him or he would empty her account of all her money. "He told me I would have to go to Walmart, go to the bank , go somewhere to get your money back."
"I looked at it and I saw all zeroes and my jaw dropped and I gasped like someone just shot me," Dobbs said. "That's when I fell on the floor. I just looked at it and went... how can you do that?"
While Debbie Dobbs was on the phone with the scammer, her husband called 911. A Washington County deputy came to the home and got on the line. That's when the would-be scammer hung up.
Dobbs said she later learned that the warning on her computer was malware, a nasty download that attached to her computer and simulated a warning in order to set a trap.
What happened to Debbie Dobbs is increasingly common according to Tri-Cities law enforcement investigators.
"They lure you in with different methods, but it often leads to the same demand," said Captain Joey Strickler, Sullivan County Sheriff's Office. "You need to go to Walmart or Kroger or some location and get a (pre-paid debit) Green Dot Card and put a certain amount of money on it, and they'll ask you for a number. That's how the theft starts rolling."
Fortunately, the scammer never actually got access to her account.
"I felt like someone intruded into my life that wrecked my life for 2 or 3 hours," Dobbs said. "It took a good week for me to get over turning the computer on."
Dobbs said she later learned that the warning on her computer was malware, a download that silently attached to her computer and simulated a warning in order to set a trap.
After giving her computer a clean sweep and installing up-to-date computer protection programs, she's started to feel comfortable going on-line, and she's determined to warn others.
"I trusted someone and they weren't really who they said they were," she said. "I'm determined to make sure others know what happened to me so it won't happen to them."Protect yourself and spread the word:
- PRINT THIS: "11 Questions to ask to Avoid Being Scammed" (.pdf)
- Click here, to sign up for scam alerts from the Federal Trade Commission
- Click here, to alert the Federal Trade Commission about a scam
- Click here, to report a complaint about a company to the Federal Trade Commission:
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