I got scammed in the most basic way possible. A man called me up and asked for my name and the last four digits of my Social Security number and I told him.
Obviously, this was a dumb thing to do and the moral of the story is that I am an idiot.
But here is what actually happened. I was having kind of a bad day; a lot of things were going wrong, I was sort of tired, I hadn’t really managed to eat, my head was hurting. Whatever, normal stuff.
The night before I had gotten a call from a 1-800 number. I never answer calls from unknown numbers, so I assumed it was spam, but I Googled the number in case the call was from my optometrists’ office, where I had recently been. I was waiting to hear about a shipment of contact lenses. It came up instead that the number was for the Social Security Administration Office: 1-800-772-1213.
Huh, I thought, I guess they’ll call back if it’s important. This is basically how I manage calls; after a couple calls from the same unknown number I usually find out things like, my birth control is ready for pick-up at CVS or FedEx is trying to schedule a window of time to deliver an unexpected package or the man who thinks he knows the identity of the Zodiac Killer and wants me to write about it has found a new number to call from, which he does from time to time.
Anyway, the next day the same number called me back and I thought, oh, it’s the Social Security Administration Office, better figure out what they want. I got a hold message and I had to press “1” to stay on the line.
Then I was transferred to a very serious-sounding man who said he worked in the Social Security Administration Office, though I didn’t catch his title. He asked me for my full name, spelled out, so he could pull up my case file. He had an unplaceable accent. “The reason you’ve received a call from us is that we have orders and notices from several law enforcement agencies and we have a suspicious trail of information associated with your name and Social Security number,” he said. I reflexively started typing up notes. My wrists were throbbing.
I have been freelance contractor for about six months and my taxes and finances in general are a bit of a mess and I don’t really live in one place. I’d been meaning to talk to an accountant but I hadn’t yet and I had essentially been waiting for this call.
The man on the other line said his name was Oscar Jones and that my case number was DMC701089 and his employer number was 02840175. He repeated those strings of numbers and letters several times, so I could get them down. Then he gave me an address in Maryland and told me there was a bench warrant for my arrest in Texas, issued in my name for financial crimes associated with my Social Security number. At this point I began to really panic, in a way I have never before panicked, never having gotten such a call.
“I think I need to call an attorney,” I told him, and he said his office could provide advice about legal counsel, but he had to patch me through to someone else who would ask me a few questions first about my case. He sounded a little impatient and I, on the verge of tears, was eager to please.
I was patched through and at this point another male voice told me that the call being monitored and began to interview me methodically. Also around this point, I began to wonder if this could be a scam but I wasn’t wondering that fully, it was more just an inkling. I Googled the number again and it came up, again, as the real number of the Social Security Administration Office.
He asked me whether I had ever lived at this address or that address in El Paso, Texas, which I had not. Had I recently traveled to Mexico? No. What about Colombia? No. Had I recently shared my Social Security number with anyone? Well yes, on roughly twenty W-9 forms I had sent to different companies and which had passed through both the annals of the internet and countless unknown human hands. Could I confirm to him the last four digits of my social? Of course. This all was kind of a blur because I was basically crying. He posited that what was happening with the bank accounts in Texas was a textbook case of identity fraud. I began to calm down, because after all he believed it wasn’t me who had been money-laundering in El Paso. There were a few more questions before he asked if I could hold please and I said yes, still shaking, and then something in me clicked and I realized this all wasn’t quite right.
Then it hit me that of course, yes, I had been scammed. I hung up.
Like many people, I find scams fascinating. “Grifter season comes irregularly, but it comes often in America, which is built around mythologies of profit and reinvention and spectacular ascent,” Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker. Last summer, the magazines declared it “The Summer of Scam,” which seemed made for my particular entertainment. The scams featured tended to be of the most well-worn kind of American scam: stealing from the mega-rich. Most notably, there was the story of Anna Delvey in New York Magazine, which involved cheating the mega-rich New York scene with plans of a nebulous art space etc. There was a man who pretended to be a Saudi prince for three decades.
There were also, of course, scams that seem darker and less entertaining, even when glossed by the magazines. Rachel Monroe wrote about one such scam for The Atlantic, in which a man donned fake identities for years and conned women he was dating into giving him thousands of dollars. This story too had a vaguely happy-ish ending, as scams go, because his victims joined forces to take him down. He’s in prison now.
The scam I fell victim to was low-stakes compared to these, or it seems that way so far. I suppose the repercussions could come at any time, but I’ve taken the measures you are supposed to take when you are scammed like this. (This genre of scam is well-known enough that the Federal Trade Commission has issued warnings about it). It was also a very low-fi scam, as I said before; it was not like the scams in which people build their whole lives around each other and then 20 years later everything unravels when a bank statement arrives in the mail. Which is all a reason to feel grateful, and also a reason I feel especially dumb.
This sense of dumbness I’ve felt after hanging up the phone is a classic feature of a scam. There’s the moment in almost every scam story when the victim asks rhetorically, or asks the reporter, “How could I not have seen this all along?” You may also be wondering this, since it’s appears frankly insane that I gave part of my Social Security number to a stranger on the phone. Scam stories traffic in individual responsibility, also an American favorite. I am directly culpable; that’s part of what narratively constitutes a scam, the willing participation of the scammed individual.
But then let’s consider Equifax: in one fell swoop, the consumer credit reporting agency revealed the Social Security numbers of roughly 146 million individuals—not just the last four digits—as well as other sensitive information. The people affected were scammed, but not in a way that would make for a good story. They gave over their information, often without realizing they were, or in bits and pieces. Data breaches, nebulous and unsexy though they may seem, are part of a massive scam that’s built on the amassing of personal information with little caution and even less care.
The scam stories we like to tell, as Tolentino observed, usually have to do with an upending of authority—a poor person pretending to be a rich person, or a rich person trying to scam other relatively rich people into going to a fake luxury concert on a private island. But most scams are not like that; as she observed, so many of the most notorious scam stories are actually the stories of failed scams. The ones that work conform to existing power structures, they prey on the law’s fetishization of individual responsibility, and perhaps most of all, our conceptions of authority. And so they don’t seem like scams at all.
Authority can be conveyed so quickly and easily that you don’t realize it’s happening. It can be the letters and numbers of bureaucracy or words like “warrant” in a stern male voice, spoken sternly on the phone. A badge—real or fake—can give a person authority; a suit can too.
I would have said that, intellectually and morally, I am against many kinds of authority. I like to think of myself as someone who is skeptical of power; I think the power of most law enforcement agencies should be dramatically reduced.
This is true, and yet in practice I am a sucker for male, law enforcement authority. I first really learned this about myself when I was reporting around crime scenes, and occasionally a police officer would bark something at me when they didn’t know I was a reporter, like that I needed to step back from an area where I was legally entitled to be, and I would jump back, terrified, like I was running from grease in a pan. One time I was parked outside someone’s house for several hours, waiting for them to come home so I could intercept them at the door. But at some point a policeman came and took down my plates and told me that someone had complained about my loitering. I vaguely tried to argue but then I started shaking and left because, after all, he scared me. I circled back later, after conferring with an editor, but remained terrified.
I was not really thinking about any of this when some guy on the other end of the line was telling me that state marshals in Texas had a warrant out for my arrest for financial crimes I did not commit—in retrospect, ridiculous, I know, I know, and I know a lot of things both from lived life and books that should have made me realize sooner. I was thinking about myself, and how small I was compared to the guy on the other end of the line, who was the law and of whom I was afraid.
Fearing the police is normal, and there are good reasons why one should. They are generally armed; they kill people; they have power that is largely unchecked by any other governing body. But why was I so afraid, on that phone call, that I would have told him anything in order to prove I was innocent? It had less to do with my moral positions about power and more to do with my instinctual deference to authority of a certain kind. This is related to the fact that, in large part due to my social class and the color of my skin, I have never experienced abuse at the hands of the police. Whatever I like to believe about myself, I was taught to follow orders and rules and it turns out that I do.
Maybe all authority is just a performance of a role. Powers vested by the state are real only insofar as we perceive them that way. Of course there might be real material consequences if you do not follow the orders of the law, or even if you do; but the man with the badge and the gun and the uniform is only real to us because he is performing a coded role. Flashing lights behind us on the highway; we pull over. I wouldn’t think about it for a second.
Which is all to say: I wasn’t really thinking about it. I listened to the man on the other end of the phone, and I got scammed.
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