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'I lost myself:' Anatomy of a long con

The NYPD has received 30 complaints from people who have lost money in a Chinese-language robocall scam.
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Dianne and Tom Clemens of Normal say they don’t want pity from this story. They made a determined decision to share how they lost their life savings of $600,000 in a swindle to prevent others from falling prey as they did.

It started Nov. 12, 2021, with a computer pop-up that prevented Dianne from getting to a newspaper website. The message told Dianne she had been hacked. There was an alarm sound and a message telling her to call a phone number for support.

“And I did. The noise was deafening. And this person answered, said his name at Microsoft, his badge number, and he worked me through several steps to get the volume down so I could hear him, and he could hear me. From there, he went on to say our network had been hacked, and that they were going to help us get through this,” said Dianne.

It hadn’t been hacked, yet, but over a period of three months, that simple decision to call the number listed would be very costly. The alarm sound and pop-up were a not uncommon scam. The code used to activate the pop-up can get on a computer in several ways, by bundling malware with something a user did want to download earlier, for instance. Some web sites also may have vulnerabilities that allow criminals to insert code on the site that users then trigger with a click.

Dianne Clemens followed the advice of the man on the phone.

“He put me on the line with another gentleman who put me through several scans. And the scan showed that there were many IP addresses that were hacking into my computer. And he asked if I had my banking institution, and I said the name of my banking institution. He put me on hold, came back in a little bit, and said he's got somebody from my banking institution from the fraud department online. And he, that person, introduced himself to me,” she said.

It was elaborate. It was lengthy. It was intimate. Clemens said the two men formed a relationship with her as they purportedly tried to “help her” safeguard her money.

“They were professional, they worked together as a team, they said the person from the bank fraud department would be heading this up. And he would be coordinating with the Microsoft person, the Microsoft person was to fill in all the holes that they, we had all these spaces, all these places where people were being getting into us,” said Clemens.

She said they wove a scenario that seemed plausible. They enlisted the Clemens’ help in the "investigation," encouraging secrecy, saying often it is a bank employee responsible for the malfeasance. They excluded the other people in the Clemens’ lives. The longer it went on, the more legitimate it seemed to Dianne.

“I'm not saying I didn't have moments when I thought what's going on here? This can't be true! And I would confront the people. They always had good excuses. They had good reasons. They knew the banking industry, they knew the computer system, they knew how to talk me through this. They said, 'You know, oh, we totally understand why you'd feel this way. But we're working toward saving your hard-earned money.' Over time, I think it really worked against us,” said Dianne.

There were personal touches. The scammers asked them how they were doing. They talked about family time, the weather, travel plans, and so on. They stopped calling on holidays. Interspersed with these talks were seemingly casual inquiries whether there were other assets. The men would "check" on the security of those institutions and report alleged hacks and security breaches there, too.

“We were doing the work for them. And that's the tragedy of this, for us to face the fact we did their work."
Tom Clemens

Talking with the Clemens up to several times a day, the scammers convinced the couple to consolidate their assets and little by little transfer money to accounts the people on the phone gave them, for what they were told would be safety — $20,000 here, $20,000 there and escalating in size.

The con artists drained the Clemens.

“And we just we fell into it. I felt like my brain was taken over, almost like trance-like. They were so smooth, and they were so congenial. They talked about how bad hackers were, and how sophisticated hackers were, and how they were working on this on a corporate level. They just knew what to say to keep me into the story,” said Dianne.

The thieves also exploited a core Midwestern values many people, including the Clemens hold dear — the desire to help out. They were told they were a key part of the investigation.

“I want to catch these people. And they said, 'Well, you're really doing a good job by helping us because this is exactly what we need.' They were full of compliments,” said Dianne. “I do think it was part of this helpfulness, this don't question authority, even though I know so much better. But I was vulnerable. They found my soft spot."

Dianne was vulnerable for another reason, too. About two weeks into the long con, doctors said her breast cancer had returned. She said she’s not looking for sympathy about that. She’s undergoing treatment. But there’s only so much stress a person can take.

“I lost myself,” said Dianne.

With such large and repeated money transfers, eight to 10 in all, financial institutions had questions. Dianne said, though, she’s not sure it triggered any increased level of oversight.

“It did increase the amount of, I would say, accusations. What are you doing with the money? They talked with me about tax evasion. Was I possibly wanting to avoid taxes? They talked with me when people get older like this, they tend to start having thoughts in their minds and some early dementia. And they don’t think things through very well. They kept questioning, why do we want this money, but nothing was done,” said Dianne

Dianne said the banks indirectly encouraged them to think critically about the transfers. The banks did raise the possibility of scammers and warned them they were on their own.

“Some people were very apathetic, they would ask three questions, and I had been prepared by the scammers for this. They said they're gonna ask you these questions. And this is what you say. Because you don't know if the person you're talking to is the person who compromised your information,” said Dianne.

But no bank ever said stop, or stopped, the transfers for further inquiry, Dianne said.

“No, no, no, not at all. Not at all. And it was all veiled. I don't think they knew what to do with me,” said Dianne. “Nobody said anything to me, including the banks and financial institutions, that put a dent in the elaborate woven fabric in my brain.”

The fleecing continued through mid-January when the Clemens began to have a slow realization that things were wrong. Dianne was dealing with her health issues. Tom Clemens began to take a more active role. He'd been aware of developments and like Dianne had been snookered. He said his first big question came when they were told they needed to transfer money from another financial institution to protect it.

“And I remember saying, 'I can't believe these other institutions aren't safe.' But I didn't do anything about it. I didn't stop her from making the transfers. And I look back on it, I just, I'm in disbelief about myself, how I could possibly let this pass through. Again, and again, and again,” said Tom.

The final day was Tuesday, Feb.1. The con artists had moved onto credit cards, asked about credit limits, and wanted Dianne to go out and spend money on gift cards and send them.

“And I got on and said, 'We're not doing anything more until you prove to us that the money is back in these other institutions.' As I'm saying that, I'm thinking I should have done this weeks ago. And he said, 'Okay, no problem. You'll meet with your banker tomorrow at 10:30, which would be the Uptown branch. And he will get a printout of all the transactions,'” said Tom.

They went to the bank. They had not been hacked. They had been had.

“We were doing the work for them. And that's the tragedy of this, for us to face the fact we did their work,” said Tom.

The Clemens did make a police report, but often in such cases, law enforcement can’t do much. Once the money leaves the victim’s account, the transfer is the first of several and chasing them down is like trying to capture smoke. Some of the transfers turned out to be overseas.

“They just stole my brain. And looking back on it, I can't believe I did this,” said Diane Clemens. “We just kind of got swept away.”

The Clemens say they would have laughed if anybody ever told them they would fall for something like this before the fact. They had read articles. They describe themselves as cautious people. They don’t even do online banking. They thought they were prepared. And yet they said they did absolutely everything wrong.

“That's why we're here today, to let people know not to get too cavalier and think you know how to do this, that you are too sharp, that you would recognize that you're not, and that you could learn from my mistake in not turning to more people,” said Dianne.

The Clemens are 72. They are both retired educators. Dianne was a nursing professor at Illinois State University. They have pensions and say they will be OK. But there is grief. There is anger. It will take time to recover because of that sense of betrayal of self as much as by the scammers. It is, in fact, trauma.

They think the best way to deal with the trauma is to change their perception of it, to acknowledge deeply it has happened.

“I had to own it. And by talking about it, I'm finding that it is easier, it is becoming less powerful. Instead of feeling like I am a fool, I'm recognizing that I was a victim, but I can become a survivor,” said Dianne.

Reaching that point of self-forgiveness can be hard. The Clemens can’t continue to beat themselves up forever.

“Well, I'm no longer yelling in the mirror when I shave. At myself. So, it's just part of the acceptance of life that things happen that you can't control. And then realizing, I don't want to dwell on that. What I want to dwell on is the things that I enjoy or that I can contribute to,” said Tom.

“And what I want to emphasize is that they stole our money. But they're not stealing the rest of my life,” said Dianne.

The Clemens are far from alone. At least one national study suggests one in 19 older Americans who are not cognitively impaired are scam victims each year.

Listen to the full interview with Dianne and Tom Clemens below:

Full interview - Dianne and Tom Clemens
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