It was a summer weekend, and Laura Marks was about to be held hostage for five hours — because, months earlier, she’d performed a simple Google search.
Laura, a Sun City Hilton Head resident, was sitting at her computer on the afternoon of Saturday, July 14, talking to “Mike.”
She’d talked to Mike the day before, too, and he’d told her she was owed money for tech support she’d purchased at the end of March. The support company, Mike said, was shuttering and could no longer honor her five-year, firewall protection plan.
But Mike, a smooth-talking man with what sounded like a South Asian accent, said he’d have to resolve the issue the next day. So, he and Laura scheduled the Saturday call.
The call was, likely, months in the making, the ultimate execution of a sophisticated, seemingly long-game scam with horrific consequences for Laura. Her story offers rare insight into the inner workings — the personality — of such a ruse, the kind that tech giants such as Google and federal authorities are struggling to combat, one that thrives on corporations’ inability or unwillingness to protect consumers.
And after the damage was done, Laura — and The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette — would continue to make puzzling discoveries that alluded to the scammer’s cruelty, creativity and brazenness.
Her story is a warning to anyone using a computer; a show of resilience to anyone who’s been conned; and a comfort to anyone who’s had a loved one fleeced from afar and been unable to help.
During the Saturday call, Laura “screen-shared” with Mike, giving him remote access to her computer so he could move the reimbursement into her account. She’d done the same thing March 28, when she’d Google-searched a phone number for support, made a call about her ailing Brother printer-fax machine and ended up talking to a man — who talked her into a five-year protection plan for $649.99.
“Just give me the extra penny and make it an even $650,” she joked with Mike.
He agreed … and gave her even more. A lot more: an extra $6,650 suddenly appeared in her checking account.
Laura was shocked; Mike said he’d made a mistake.
But their phone call was about to turn ugly.
Laura’s mouse wouldn’t respond; her computer was no longer her own.
She watched as her checking and savings accounts were, apparently, emptied.
And then Mike sent her on a mission.
He gave her specific instructions.
He made her stay on the phone the entire time.
Five hours of panic ensued.
And when the ordeal finally ended in a Bluffton parking lot, Laura had lost $18,000.
She was ashamed.
And for a while, she was silent.
‘An act of violence’
It would be easy to assume Laura’s story is that of another less-than-tech savvy retiree exploited for her naivete.
But such an assumption lacks nuance and is an injustice to the trauma she and her loved ones — and tens of thousands of others — have endured.
“She’s not an easy mark, by any means,” her sister, Mona Haff, said recently, explaining that Laura has, among other things, held positions that required her to use tech tools to track finances.
Laura, 68, is a veteran educator who taught for more than three decades. While she’s not a computer guru, she uses smartphones and iPads and other gadgets. She sets up auto-pay for her bills, and knows that Apple text documents might not format correctly when opened on PCs.
“She’s computer-literate and street-smart,” said her son, David Marks, a freelance video editor who lives in San Francisco. “I learned my street-smarts from her.”
The scam his mother suffered had an “intimidation” vibe, “almost blackmail-like,” he said. “It seemed like an act of violence,” he continued. “The dude had her on the phone for hours ... .”
In August, the Wall Street Journal published its investigation of tech scams tied to Google searches; the probe prompted the tech giant to begin “to weed out scam artists who advertise on its platform aiming to defraud customers seeking technical support online,” the Journal reported.
Scammers frequently buy ads from Google — such as the one Laura says she clicked on in March — and other search engines, according to Will Maxson, the Federal Trade Commission’s assistant director of the division of marketing practices. And when they do, they spruce up the ads with keywords — tech support terms and product names — that increase their reach and help them rise to the top of internet search results.
Sometimes ads are used by “lead generators,” Maxson said — people tasked with making initial contact with victims and routing them to scam shops and call centers.
Citing an academic study by scholars from Georgia Tech and Stony Brook University, the Journal reported that more than 70 percent “of sponsored ads on major search engines related to technical support queries led to scam websites.”
Google, according to the Journal, “removed more than 100 such ads per second for violating company policies” in 2017.
In April, Forbes magazine reported that Microsoft witnessed a 24 percent increase in Windows tech-support scams in 2017, when it received over 150,000 reports of fishy schemes and learned roughly 22,000 users had been scammed — including “one victim whose bank account was drained of nearly $110,000.”
The FTC received almost 43,000 complaints of tech-support scams in 2017, according to agency statistics.
Laura’s victimization likely began when she went to Google and searched for “phone number for Brother printer.”
After a click and a couple of calls, she was promised firewall protection so powerful even the Russians couldn’t hack it.
Laura was trying to send a fax on March 28 when she searched for tech support.
Like anyone struggling to do something on a tight deadline, she was looking for a quick solution.
She clicked on a Google ad and called the number. The person who answered gave her another number to call, one answered by a man claiming to work for “HP Tech Chaste” — the name she would soon print on a paper check she kept to document her $649.99 purchase.
The man said he could not resolve the issue with her Brother machine and asked if she would screen-share so he could further diagnose the matter. He used a lot of “computer-ese,” Laura said, and eventually convinced her that she had bigger problems with her Mac. He sold her the five-year protection plan.
She allowed him to access her Wells Fargo accounts, and the transfer was made.
He gave her yet another phone number to call for direct customer support — 1-800-510-2305 — a customer identification number and a case identification number.
Days later, she called that number — just to make sure she hadn’t been scammed — and felt reassured. A man gave her a refund identification number and refund password in case she wasn’t satisfied with the service.
Months passed. Her computer worked fine. Her finances were in order.
Then, in early July, an automated message in a woman’s voice left on her phone informed her that she was due a refund for tech support, and left a number to call — one that would connect her to Mike.
“If you paid for tech support services, and you later get a call about a refund, that call is probably also a scam,” according to the FTC’s website.
The FTC says refund scams often start “several months” later and claim “the company is going out of business” to convince people to release their financial information.
Oftentimes, scammers will simply drain victims’ bank accounts and disappear.
But Mike’s scam had a twist, one that would send Laura scrambling around Bluffton.
When Mike moved the $6,650 accidental “refund” into her checking account, Laura knew she was being scammed.
When she saw her balance — some $23,000 including the erroneous refund, according to bank statements from accounts she’s since closed — drop to “$0,” she panicked.
Mike had first tried to soft-peddle the mistake, saying the error could cost him his job and pleading for Laura’s help. He asked her to go to Walmart and buy six $1,000 gift cards and give him the cards’ numbers over the phone, which would fix the mishap.
Laura told him no.
So he started yelling at her and, apparently, emptying her checking and savings accounts.
Go to Walmart, he said, holding her money hostage. Take your driver’s license. Leave your computer on. And don’t hang up the phone.
Frazzled, Laura accidentally went to Sam’s Club in Bluffton.
Her receipt, timestamped 2:47 p.m., July 14, shows she purchased six $1,000 gift cards with her Wells Fargo debit card.
She rushed to her car, scratched off the gray protective film covering the cards’ numbers, then read them to Mike.
She’d taken her iPad with her, so she logged into her Wells Fargo accounts — they still registered $0.
She was still Mike’s hostage.
He sent her to nearby Walmart next.
She used her American Express credit card this time, purchasing six more $1,000 gift cards at 3:32 p.m.
She again read him the numbers and checked her iPad — her accounts were still empty.
Go to Walmart again, he said.
She told him she’d have to go later because she had a doctor’s appointment — a visit with her podiatrist — and she’d have to call him back. She thought about calling the cops.
“And I went to the doctor, and I had shut the phone,” Laura recently said in her New York accent, recalling the day. “And why have I made no calls? I know why: because my bank account was still zero.”
After again checking her iPad, she called Mike back.
He told her to go back to Walmart.
She did — six more $1,000 cards purchased with her American Express at 5:31 p.m.
This time, though, Laura had a curveball for Mike.
Still, he would have the last laugh, since one of his yet undiscovered tricks would cause further embarrassment.
The shell game
Her Wells Fargo account still showing $0 — already out $12,000 in gift cards — Laura had had enough.
Restore my account now, she told Mike, or I won’t give you the last six cards’ numbers.
The money reappeared in her account; Laura gave him the final set of numbers.
She’d lost $18,000 — all of the cards were emptied of their money the same day they were purchased, according to balance information obtained from Walmart and Sam’s Club.
“(Scammers) use gift cards because it’s very difficult to unwind a gift-card transfer,” Maxson said. They’re preferable to credit cards, which often have fraud protection, he explained. Scammers often quickly re-sell gift cards on the internet or “dark web,” he said, for, perhaps, 60 to 70 cents on the dollar.
The funds often flow overseas, Maxson said, which hinders investigations, law enforcement actions and the ability to recoup victims’ money.
Criminals have taken advantage of India in particular, which has become a hotbed for call-center fraud.
In January, Dehli-based journalist Snigdha Poonam reported how scam operators thrive on the country’s overcrowded job market and leverage bleak employment prospects to lure people into staffing call-center rackets. Citing a 2016 Stony Brook study, The Hindustan Times reported that “86 percent of all tech scams originated in India.”
Laura could have lost more, but she later learned Wells Fargo had blocked an attempted transfer from her account because “it looked unusual.”
“And I went to sleep that night, and I got up at 4 a.m. or 4:30 a.m., and I was fuming,” Laura said. “I was mad at myself. I was mad at (Mike). And I called the police.”
A Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputy arrived around 5:45 a.m., according to the police report, and she told him the story.
Laura had a number for Mike, and the deputy called it: (786) 577-8731.
“(A) male, with what sounded like an Indian accent, answered the phone,” the deputy noted. “I asked for Mike and he responded that he was Mike. (He) refused to provide me with any information on his whereabouts and kept asking for the name of the victim. (He) then told me I had received the wrong information and hung up on me.”
Today, that same number greets callers with a robotic voice that says, “Call rejected.”
In October, Laura would learn more about Mike’s tricks when she looked closer at her old bank statements.
She’d see how, when he’d “refunded” the $6,650 into her checking account, he’d really just transferred the money from her Wells Fargo credit card, presumably counting on the shock value of the sudden influx of cash to distract from the refund’s origin — a strategy that worked.
In sum, he’d used $13,000 from that credit card on July 14, shuffling it back and forth between her checking and savings accounts, perhaps to create the illusion of the accounts emptying, perhaps to cover gift-card purchases.
It was a shell game, and he scammed Laura with her own money.
Laura said Wells Fargo could not explain why her account registered $0 that day — she wonders if Mike chose a Saturday because he knew the bank would be closed.
The bank would, however, be able to tell her the real name of the company that collected her $649.99 check in March.
And that discovery would lead to other puzzling findings.
In July, Laura reported the scam to her bank and American Express.
She appealed the transactions made July 14, but, to date, neither financial institution has reimbursed her — both say they can’t, since she personally purchased the gift cards, according to documentation she shared with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
She’s particularly upset with American Express, which she says once stopped a $22,000 transaction for a piece of art she’d purchased on a cruise — why would the creditor flag that purchase and not two $6,000 transactions made within a couple of hours of each other at Walmart, she wonders? Who spends $12,000 in one day at Walmart?
And why didn’t Walmart flag so many high-dollar gift cards purchased in a single afternoon? (Walmart did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
She’s filed an FBI report, a copy of which she shared with the newspapers, but has heard nothing from the agency.
She plans to file a report with the FTC.
After visiting Wells Fargo again in October, Laura learned her March $649.99 check was not collected by HP Tech Chaste, but instead by a company called Tech Chaste Solutions, LLC.
To be clear, there are no known allegations against that company related to the scam that fleeced Laura, or any others rackets.
A records search found no court cases filed against the company, and a search for Better Business Bureau complaints yielded none.
There is no indication “Mike” worked for the company: he didn’t identify his employer, Laura said, though he knew how much she’d paid for her March purchase.
And the FTC does not comment on any ongoing investigations it might be conducting, and won’t confirm or deny any parties it might be investigating.
But here’s what is known:
- A Google search for “Tech Chaste Solutions, LLC” leads to a website for a company located in Michigan. State business records indicate the company was incorporated in December 2017 and is located off Crego Boulevard, in Saginaw — the same address listed on Tech Chaste’s website.
- Four calls made over multiple days to two numbers linked to a man listed in state records as the company’s “registered agent” and “organizer” went unanswered. Neither number had a working voicemail box.
- Inquiries to the business’ toll-free number (1-800-546-2856) are answered by men with South Asian accents, who greet callers by saying, “Printer support,” or “Thank you for calling support.” And based on background noise and the frequency of transferred calls, inquiries sound like they’re being fielded in a call center — not the three-bedroom, one-bathroom house at the corresponding address off Crego Boulevard, according to Saginaw County property records.
- When the men were asked what company they work for, they said, after being pressed, “Aegis Support” in “Philadelphia.”
Aegis Support LLC was registered in Pennsylvania in February, according to state records.
Inquiries to the business are also answered by men with similar-sounding accents who greet callers with the same salutations. And Aegis’ support toll-free number — 1-800-510-2305 — is the same one Laura was given after purchasing her $649.99 protection plan in March.
A records search found no lawsuits or complaints against Aegis, and there are no known allegations of scamming against the company.
- Similar to Tech Chaste, calls to Aegis sound like they’re answered in a call center, and not the house property records indicate is off Philadelphia’s Bustleton Avenue at the address listed on Aegis’ website and state business filings — the address confirmed by men answering the toll-free number.
- A man who identified himself as “Brian Leff” and a “manager” at Aegis told a reporter at The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette on Friday, Oct. 5, that the business was legitimate and not associated with any scams. At first, he said he had never heard of either HP Tech Chaste or Tech Chaste Solutions; then, he put the reporter on an extended hold.
- The reporter called back and got Leff again, and asked to speak to his supervisor; that person was “too busy,” Leff said. Later, he said that Aegis had “acquired” Tech Chaste about a month ago, and Aegis wasn’t responsible for anything another company might have done to a customer.
- When given Laura’s customer ID and case ID numbers — which she received in March — Leff said he could find no record of her or her protection plan.
- When again asked who his supervisor was, and for the location and contact information for Aegis’ headquarters, Leff said he did not have that information, and once more put the reporter on a long hold.
At the start of the following week, a reporter’s calls made to Tech Chaste’s toll-free number went unanswered.
Later in the week, that number appeared to be disconnected — it rang once before beginning a series of beeps.
And at the end of the week, calls were answered by piano music — a two-minute melody — before being transferred to a line that rang six to 12 times, only to be answered by the same song.
The loss of $18,000 doesn’t hurt Laura the way it might someone else.
In her case, she won’t be able to remodel her bathroom and go on a trip this year.
And she’ll have to “tighten the belt.”
“Truthfully, I was beating myself up about this,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “I’m crying now because I’m reliving it.”
Greater than the monetary damage was the hit to her pride: she only told her son of the ordeal after he’d called to ask her what was going on with her bank accounts. He’s listed on those accounts with Laura, and he’d gotten a bunch of Wells Fargo emails that prompted him to reach out.
He was frustrated at first, as any child would be, unable to help from thousands of miles away.
“And I kind of got upset that she didn’t call me in the middle of (the scam),” David Marks said. He would later apologize for being frustrated, and realized that going over and over the incident — the checklist of what she should have done — would only make her feel worse.
“She was a teacher all her life,” David continued. “And I think if she could turn it into a moment or a story that would help others, that would make her happy.”
And that’s why Laura shared her story — so others wouldn’t make the same mistakes and be taken advantage of as she was.
She still has a message from “Mike” on her answering machine, left Sunday, July 15.
His voice is devoid of emotion, almost meek — he asks her to call him about an urgent matter.
It’s frightening in its subtlety.
And, it’s a ghostly reminder of her ordeal.
Recently, Laura got a call from another scammer.
It wasn’t Mike.
She listened to his pitch — another refund ruse — and played along for a bit.
Then she yelled at him, said she knew he was a phony.
And that felt good.
Don’t get scammed
The Federal Trade Commission’s website has resources on how to spot and combat tech-support scams
Here are some quick tips:
Need computer help? Searching for tech help online is risky because you might find a scam. Instead, go directly to a person, company or business you know and trust, and ask tech-savvy friends for recommendations.
Scammers pose as big companies, but legitimate corporations will never call and ask you for access to your computer.
If you get calls from unknown numbers or pop-up messages on your screen offering support, hang up and don’t click on them.
Scammers use urgency — fake viruses, simulated hardware problems, etc. — to pressure you into giving up your personal information and buying worthless services. Remember: you can always hang up the phone and turn off your computer.
Don’t allow anyone to “screen-share,” or remotely access your computer, and never buy gift cards to pay for services.
If you think you’ve been scammed, file a complaint with the FTC at www.ftc.gov/complaint.