The FBI agent sounded official. He gave Nina Belis his badge number and a story on the phone about how her identity had been compromised. She gave him her life’s savings. For Belis, an oncology nurse, a law-enforcement impersonation scam that appeared to have started with a robocall caused financial losses that sapped her family’s nest egg and derailed her retirement, the Wall Street Journal reports. The scale of her nearly $340,000 loss and the ease with which the money was moved out of her accounts show why scam calls persist. They work, even on people who believe they would never fall for one.
The caller used what psychologists describe as a reliance on people in authority, and kept Belis in a state of isolation and heightened emotion to cloud her judgment. He told her that her Social Security number had been stolen and that crimes had been committed under her name, and persuaded her to transfer assets to accounts he controlled on the pretext of protecting the funds. The Belis case has the hallmarks of government impersonation scams that have snared thousands of other consumers. In the first nine months of the year, the Federal Trade Commission received 39,000 reports of fraud in which people claimed to be from the Social Security Administration, with losses totaling nearly $30 million. Inexpensive internet-phone technology gives criminals a way to make thousands of robocalls to lure victims. In New York City alone, consumers lost $5.8 million in 523 Social Security Administration impostor scams between January and late October. Many of those used law-enforcement impostors to help facilitate the fraud.