OAKLEY, Calif. (KGO) -- The federal government reports scammers stole a record $8.8 billion from their victims last year -- a full 30% more than in 2021. And most of those scammers are imposters, posing as someone you'd trust -- your bank, utility company or government agency. Among the latest victims is an East Bay woman who thought she was returning a purchase to a store.
This woman was already under stress, about to go into the hospital, and trying to finish some business beforehand. She found a phone number online and thought she was talking to a real customer service agent. She wasn't.
It happened just hours before Oakley resident Tracy Jones had to get to the hospital for a surgery -- she decided to get one more thing done.
"I thought well, I have a minute, let me see if I can do this," Jones said. "It was the worst day of my life."
Jones just wanted to return some grilling baskets she'd purchased online. They'd arrived dented and crushed.
"They're supposed to be round, but they're all smashed flat," she said.
Jones says she went online, Googled "Etsy customer service," and called the first number she saw.
"That's what started this whole mess that I'm in..." she said.
A man on the phone said he'd give her a refund. First she had to download an app on her phone.
"As we were talking, he said, 'It looks like you've been hacked,'" Jones said. "Someone was trying to use my account to buy an iPhone and iPads."
The man told her she had to stop the hack by purchasing Apple gift cards. The numbers on the back would block the thieves, and he'd deposit money into her bank account to cover the cost.
"He sent me to Lowes first. He said, 'I've deposited $1,000 into your account... and when you get the gift cards you need to sit in the car so you can use Lowes' WiFi and you take a picture of the receipt,'" Jones said.
Text messages from the man seemed to show he was depositing money into her account.
Jones followed his instructions, driving to Lowes, Target and Raley's stores. She bought Apple and Target gift cards totaling nearly $5,000. She scratched off the backs and took pictures of the card numbers, texting them to the person she thought was an Etsy manager. As hours ticked by, she grew more anxious.
"And I said, 'Look, I don't have much time, I'm supposed to go to the hospital in about 45 minutes,'" Jones said.
The man told her to hurry. And later, as she was about to undergo surgery, another text.
There was a problem. The card numbers were supposedly not blocking the hackers. She had to buy more cards. Jones replied, "I can't, I'm in the hospital."
Jones came home with a stent in her heart, and then, a metaphorical knife.
"I stopped by the bank on the way home from the hospital. That's when I found out... there was no money in my account," she said.
It wasn't Etsy, it was an imposter, and that app she downloaded let him take control of her phone.
What's more, the scammer is still using that phone number.
7 On Your Side called the number. A man picked up, saying, "Support."
"This is support? I'm looking for Etsy customer service," our staffer said on the phone. "Oh, this is Etsy customer service? OK, I need to return an item I bought on Etsy."
The man wanted to know our staffer's name, email, and the type of phone she uses.
"Yeah, first name is Samantha..." Our staffer gave a fake name to the scammer.
The man then gives the good news.
"So it's good, I can return it and a courier will pick it up tomorrow? Oh, I get an instant refund. Even better!" said our staffer on the phone.
Now the scammer goes for her phone. The man wanted her to download "AnyDesk," an app that would let him take control of her phone.
We clicked off.
A Google search no longer turns up that number -- but scammers are still there.
We reached out to Etsy but have not heard back.
To make sure you are calling a real number for a company, go to the real company website. You can tell it's authentic if the URL starts with "https://" and when you open the site, you should see a tiny lock icon next to it.
"I just want everybody to know and be aware... what you think is happening is not happening," said Jones.
7 On Your Side asked Lowes, Raleys and Target about their policies for selling multiple gift cards. All said they warn customers not to fall for scams... somehow these purchases went through, including four transactions totaling $2,000 at a single Raley's store. And Google tells us it did not find any sponsored listing with that scam number, but says it's constantly working to prevent fake numbers from rising to the top of Google search results.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
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