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opinion

Illustration by Drew Shannon

Barbara Gowdy is the author of eight books, including The Romantic and The White Bone.

On a recent Monday morning my cellphone woke me. I picked up without looking at the number.

A man identifying himself as a fraud investigator with the CIBC said that my bank accounts had been compromised and I’d had my identity stolen. He gave his name as Steve Slater. (He had a strong South Asian accent, but who am I to question what people call themselves?) He recited his employee number and a case-file number and advised me to write them down.

To my groggy brain he sounded convincing. He said that less than an hour ago $2,000 had been e-transferred from my savings account to a man claiming to be my cousin Andrew.

“I don’t have a cousin Andrew,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said. He then launched into a complicated description of how the scammers operated. The gist, as far as I could understand it, was that they paid crooked store employees to carry fake versions of real prepaid gift cards called Jokers. Joker cards, he said, are equivalent to cash.

“They already have cash,” I said. “They have the stolen cash.”

“Exactly,” Steve said.

I’m not good at grasping monetary transactions beyond handing over my debit card at the checkout counter. But it seems I’d hit on the heart of the matter. Did he mean that the scammers were laundering the stolen money? Why didn’t I ask? I don’t know. I was waiting for clarity to kick in. I was afraid that even as we spoke, more money was being drained from my savings account.

Steve kept talking and talking. He said that he and his “team” (I could hear loud male voices in the background) were zeroing in on scammers who were CIBC employees. The manager at the Bloor-Yonge branch, not too far from my home in Toronto, was under suspicion. What was needed now – ”right now, immediately” – was for someone like me, “a normal lady,” to withdraw $6,000 from the branch and start buying Joker gift cards at local Shoppers Drug Marts and Loblaws. This would enable his team to “nail the small fry.” He told me that he had already injected $6,000 into my personal account to cover the withdrawal. Once I’d used up the $6,000, he would deposit another $9,000 for me to withdraw in “unsuspicious” smaller sums from various other branches. Why $6,000 and $9,000? I just assumed he had his reasons. He said, “If you help us, we’ll do our best to recover your identity.”

No time to go online and verify the deposit. No time for breakfast. I quickly dressed, grabbed my wallet, raced down to the parking garage and got on my bike. I entered a dream in which I was performing my civic duty, I was Nancy Drew, riding all over the city, withdrawing thousands here, purchasing gift cards there. I carried my cell in an opened pocket of my purse and wore my ear buds, thus keeping Steve in the constant contact he said was essential to my safety. He warned me against putting him on hold or telling anybody what I was up to, as the fraudsters had access to my outgoing calls. “You can’t believe how clever these guys are,” he said more than once. He told me to ignore pushback from bank and store clerks about the size of my withdrawals and gift-card purchases. From outside banks, I whispered into my cell, “I’m going in.”

For eight hours I was Steve’s operative on the ground. At one point, despite his protests, I went online to see how much money was in my account. Only $1,400 dollars, down from $15,000 the day before. Steve said, “It’s all still there, but we have to make it look like it isn’t or we raise suspicion.” He kept saying, “Don’t worry, Barbara. Trust me. We have your back, Barbara.” He used my name a lot. He had a great voice: soothing one minute, commanding the next.

He convinced me that the bad guys were everywhere and were on the lookout for citizens working on behalf of the investigators. He had me describe tellers and store clerks. This, of course, appealed to the novelist in me, as he must have known. I showed off. I waxed poetic about noses, ears, hairdos.

A clerk at the Loblaws on Broadview Avenue went to some lengths to caution me about buying Joker-cards in bulk. “There’s a scam going around,” she said. Steve heard her and whispered in my ear buds, “Be cool, she’s fishing.”

“Then why are you selling them,” I challenged the clerk.

“Exactly,” Steve whispered.

The woman gave up. “I don’t make store policy,” she said and rang in my thousand-dollar sale.

As I rushed from bank to bank and store to store, I asked Steve about his life. He said he lived on half an acre north of the city and worked on Bay Street. He was married and had a three-month-old baby girl. “She’s my angel,” he said. His parents had been killed in a car accident when he was 14. His younger sister has never gotten over it.

Maybe these family details were true. He Googled me and said that I looked so young “like a movie star,” and that he planned to read my books. I must be hard up for flattery because I was flattered.

For the first three or four hours I was fuelled by righteous energy. Eventually I started to flag. Steve sympathized but pressed me to keep going: “We’ve caught the ringleader, we’re closing in.” Whenever I scored a batch of gift cards, sometimes 20 at once, he had me open them and scrape off the seals to reveal the numbers and expiry dates, then take a photo with my phone and send the photos to him. Yes, I did all this, placing the cards on the sidewalk for the good light.

By five o’clock he was done. He needed to get home to his wife and angel. More to the point (as I was soon to discover) my bank accounts were empty. I began to emerge from my fog. “I don’t get the whole gift-card angle,” I admitted. He told me that the head of the investigation, a man named “Mr. Fred Rodriquez,” would be showing up at my home the next afternoon to explain.

“What about the identify theft?” I asked.

“That has been solved,” he said. “You’re in the clear.”

I thanked him passionately.

“Goodbye, Barbara,” he said. “You are a brave woman. Enjoy your evening.”

I phoned my partner, Chris. Within seconds he knew that I’d been scammed. He watches CTV news at 11 p.m., he’d heard of the very scam I’d so zealously devoted my day to. It’s famous, apparently. The scammers work out of pop-up offices, mostly in Kolkata. “Why didn’t you call me?” Chris said.

I started to cry. I take antidepressants, so I don’t cry easily.

“Have you called the police?” Chris said.

We hung up, and I dialled 911. The officer who answered said a detective would be in touch.

“When?” I asked.

“Two, three weeks,” the officer said.

In other words, the case was already cold.

The next morning I destroyed my credit and bank cards and began the hellish work of closing my accounts, opening new ones, and informing Netflix, Virgin Mobile, Rogers, Revenue Canada, etc., about my changed financial status. A CIBC fraud investigator – a real CIBC fraud investigator – told me that they never phone people to notify them of a scam. “We send a text,” she said. “We advise you to contact your branch.” As for the $15,000, it was gone, she said, irretrievably, since I withdrew it myself, “of my own free will.”

But was it my own free will? Looking back over that long day, I see a woman without will. The will in operation belonged to the voice coming through my ear buds.

Chris’s generous explanation is that when you’re hit with bad news straight out of sleep, you enter a state of hypnotic panic. Okay, but what about all the red flags flapping in my face, the biggest being, would a bank really send a 71-year-old woman racing around town under the noses of men who had every reason to do her harm? That question did, in fact, occur to me, off and on. I barely registered it. The truth is, I was enjoying myself. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, I had focus. I had a mission. I was necessary.

It’s a hard drop from necessary to ridiculous. I tell myself that there aren’t many job opportunities for smart guys like Steve, or whatever his name is, not in his part of the world. And I wasn’t exactly a scammer’s nightmare. There was a time, before answering machines and call display, when you answered the phone because it rang. I never left that time. Worse, I tended to ignore text alerts from my bank, and for passwords I used variations of my birth date and initials.

Since that day, friends have been sending me podcasts and YouTube videos of scammers being scammed by clever tech guys playing them at their own game. It’s a new world war, fought over money not territory and mostly on North American soil. For camouflage, the invaders assume a mash-up of movie-star names: Tom Pitt, Josh Jackman. Steve Slater. The soldiers on both sides are young and geeky. They virtually slay each other with their virtual weapons. “Normal ladies” like me are among the casualties.

The police have yet to call back. Mr. Fred Rodriquez never showed up.

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