MARYVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A Maryville woman has been left with almost nothing after a scammer drained her checking and savings accounts. But they didn’t stop there. She fears someone also could have been spying on her through her computer and home security cameras.
Jeanette Harmon’s nightmare of a week started Jan. 25. She received an email she thought was from her antivirus software company, saying they were going to autofill her subscription for the year, and would be automatically charging her account for $299.99.
This wasn’t something Jeanette wanted or asked for, but it was from a company she used and trusted, so she called the number listed in the email, and started asking some questions.
“‘Why are you charging my bank?’ And of course at this point in time, I didn’t know if he had charged my bank. So he said ‘no problem, we can refund your money.’ He said, ‘to refund your money, we’re going to need you to download this program.’ Well at the time I didn’t know it was a remote access program,” Jeanette Harmon said.
That’s when the problems started. Jeanette downloaded the program and let the man on the phone quickly guide her through several forms, all while he had remote access to her computer and all of her files. One of the forms had her manually type in an amount for a refund — the refund was supposed to be for the $299 she was told she was being charged for the auto renewal.
The person on the phone instructed her to round the number up and type in $300. She did that, but then two more zeros appeared, making the amount $30,000.
“I put in 300, and then two more zeros appeared and the whole thing scrolled down,” she said.
At the bottom of the form, there was a note that said the maximum refund could only be $25,000.
“He said ‘oh, my God; you just put those zeros in there, and now you’ve taken $25,000 of our money.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t take your money; I didn’t put those zeros in there; I promise you I didn’t touch it,'” she said.
At this point, the person on the phone has made Jeanette to believe that she has mistakenly put the wrong amount for her refund on the form, and has now taken the maximum amount ($25,000) from the anti virus company and transferred it to her bank account. Jeanette believes this and tells them to take the money back.
“He said ‘You know, that’s not your money, ma’am.’ I said ‘I know it’s not my money. I don’t want your money. I said take it back. You put it in, take it out.’ He said ‘Well, no we can’t do that.’ He said, ‘The only option available to us is to wire it. You know, do a wire transfer from the bank,'” she said.
From there, he had Jeanette go to the bank and complete a wire transfer for $25,000. She was instructed to scan all the documents so that the person on the phone could see proof that the wire had been initiated.
“He had control of my computer; he had control of my printer; he printed all this information out that I had to take to the bank, and when you go to the bank make sure that you don’t tell them that it’s to repay a company mistake. He said, ‘You did this. You have to fix it,'” she said.
He had Jeanette leave her computer on all night while he performed what he called “scans” to make sure the money went through.
The next morning, Jeanette checked her account balance and saw that she had a balance of negative $50,000. She figured it would be her same balance minus the $25,000 that she thought she mistakenly put in her account, but it was more than what she originally had in there.
She immediately called the man back for an explanation, but he couldn’t give her one. She went to her bank to get an accurate balance. They told her there was only $532 (there was originally $30,000 from her late husband’s life insurance policy) left in her savings account and just $50 (there was originally $2,400) in her checking.
The man then called Jeanette back and told her the wire transfer she did “messed up” the bank and she would have to pay him back in gift cards. Since Jeanette didn’t have that much cash left on hand, she used credit cards to buy nearly $10,000 in gift cards to pay back a debt she thought she owed this company.
Jeanette started sending the gift cards one by one to the mystery man on the phone, not even realizing she was sending her own money.
But the money wasn’t the worst part of her three-day ordeal.
Jeanette also discovered that her home security cameras may have been compromised.
“I came in the door, and I noticed the camera was on on my computer. Which I’ve never used it. There’s never been a white light on my computer. So I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s watching me.’ So, I put a little sticky note on top of it to try and cover it up. I mean, somebody is looking at me in my house and listening to me. I mean, it is disgusting; it’s like somebody going through your underwear drawer. It’s just a horrible, horrible feeling,” she said.
At that point Jeanette unplugged all of her cameras and her computer and called the police to make a report. She canceled all of her credit cards and discontinued contact with the man.
Avertium Security tips
Unfortunately, Jeanette isn’t the only victim. Jacob Little, an enterprise consultant at Avertium Security says there were many red flags in Jeanette’s story.
“What happened there is all too common. It’s a tactic that malicious parties use,” Little said. “They’ll send an email out and then they’ll do either a follow up call to you or they’ll have you call them. And then once they get that conversation going, they’ll ask you ‘hey can I send you a website or a link that you need to click on or can I get remote it into your computer with you because I think you have a virus.’ Anything unsolicited like that always is 99% of the time a scam.”
Little says if you think your bank account has been compromised, you should call your financial institution immediately.
If you get an email with a link in it, Little suggests hovering over it before clicking, to see where the link goes. Lots of scammers are able to closely match the emails of legitimate companies.
Little says always take a second look at the email address.
Sometimes there’s one letter off, or the email won’t contain an official company logo. Also, companies will rarely ask you to complete financial transactions in an email.
Jeanette is now in the process of trying to get some or all of her money back.
Without credit cards and both of her accounts wiped clean, she has little money on hand. She gets a social security check, but it only comes once a month. She is working with her bank and local authorities.
The detective in charge of this case says the investigation is ongoing.