‘It happened to me’: Scammed in Costa Rica

December 10, 2018

Editor’s Note: The Tico Times does not regularly publish anonymous submissions but waived that requirement because of the security concerns for the writer and the importance of this message for our reading public. 

To the Editor: 

But of course I thought it never would. Smugly, I believed I was beyond the grasp of phone scammers. I have lived here in Costa Rica for over 30 years. I tend to be a bit suspicious, hanging up immediately when I get a phone call from any kind of organization.

But on this day I was already vulnerable. I was in the middle of being investigated to receive credit to buy something. Perhaps this is why I was unprepared for the call from Hacienda (Costa Rican version of the IRS). Just the fact that it was them already created a bit of fear in me. The commanding voice triggered some odd compliance in me. By the end, my thinking brain was completely hijacked. In this short article, I attempt to break down the tactics that were used to do this.

First tactic: FEAR. (Government agency, possible loss of this or loss of that — credit card, bank savings, etc.) Scammers may also use HOPE (to win something), but that is not what happened to me, and I can only share my own experience. This man’s commanding manner, and the fact that he was supposedly from Hacienda, immediately made me feel insecure, tense, scared. The fear triggered compliance.

Then, the LIES start: “Hacienda is no longer receiving electronic receipts from private companies. You have to give clients official Hacienda receipts.” Rapidly followed by, “We are sending someone to your house this Friday. What time is good for you? He will have an audio-visual explaining how to do these online receipts” (DISTRACTION). Already, you’re engaged, saying they can come by at 9 a.m.

Then the DISARMING of resistance combined with fast questions: Me, “I’d rather go in to Hacienda myself.” His response, “Don’t worry. I won’t ask any personal questions.” Immediately followed with a direct command, “I am going to direct you to three websites (he names them). Now go to www.hacienda.go.cr(which you know is an official site because you already do give online receipts). You follow the order, without thinking. Nervous.

Fourth and most effective tactic: Rapid, commanding statements and strong ORDERS. Wham-bam-wham-bam.  “Go here, go there, go here, now do this.” High tension, a lot of anxiety and stress.

Fifth and other tactics, FLATTERY, compassion. He compliments you. “You are smart.” Jokes with you a bit. He gains compassion, “Now imagine having to do this with 26,000 contributors. Most of my calls take three hours.” Something happens and you are trusting this authority figure, thinking he is helping you do something complicated.

In the midst of all this, you have downloaded two sites that allow him to see what you are doing on your computer. Unbeknownst to you, you are now sharing your screen with them. (I say “them” because it is obvious that they work in teams: while one is manipulating you, the others are typing on their own screens.) They can see everything you are typing at Hacienda’s website.

More strong, direct orders. “Type these numbers here. Go back there.”’ You go back to Hacienda and are filling in the forms: cédula, date of birth, expiration date of cédula. All of these forms boggle your mind, create confusion, more stress, and therefore more dependence on the orders because it is all so overwhelming.

Then they ask at which bank you pay taxes. You tell them.

You are now completely under this person’s spell, obediently following all orders. All rationality gone out the window.

More rapid commands. Then slowing down as you fill out all the legal forms. You make  mistakes. You have to start all over. (He doesn’t care. He wants to waste time while they do all the banking transfers.)

You actually type on the Hacienda form six bank token numbers, thinking Hacienda needs them for you to pay them directly.  Of course this makes no sense. But in this compliant, stressed state of mind, your mind tells you that it does. It must be the way that Hacienda will be paid by online banking. (Totally against what you already know.) Unbelievable!

Needless to say, they have added themselves as a favorite account and drained all your accounts. They ask if you have another back-up bank for tax payments. Yes, you do. They send you to your other bank, and you do the most irrational things, foggily thinking that they are doing some kind of computer tricks that are necessary for your bank to be affiliated with Hacienda. Incredible!

At the end, he commands you to close all tabs, “now.” You have been following orders all this time, so you do this as well. You are still distressed because you do not understand anything that has gone on. They say, “Don’t worry. Someone will be coming to your house on Friday. What time is good for you again? What is your exact address?” You give them this information again, still not particularly wanting anyone from Hacienda to come to your house. Phone call ends. You are relieved to finally be out from all the distress that was generated by the call. “Phew! Thank God THAT is over!” You have missed appointments. You need to get on with the day and carry on with that “I-just-came-out-of-a-storm’’ feeling.

It took one hour and 45 minutes. All your bank accounts have been drained of your savings.

After this, as you courageously share with your Facebook friends, despite your shame, you find out this kind of scam has happened to many of your good friends. And to their friends. People who are “computer techies,” and “financial wizards,” and such. Smart people who have also lived here a long time and “‘know better.’’ They say, “It happened to me.”

All of us believed we were too smart, it could never happen to us. But it did. It happened to us. And due to our shame and humiliation, many do not share about this publicly.

The total mind control is absolutely shocking and humiliating. I compliantly obeyed all of this man’s orders. When I mentioned to a friend that it was as if I was under his spell, she said that this is what her neighbor had said, that it was as if he were under a spell. It is as if all the stress and commands put us  in an altered state of consciousness where reason does not exist, only an instant following of commands. Scary. Like the Milgram experiment where the participants gave increasingly high-voltage shocks to “learners,” obeying the instructions of the authority figure. Yes. How humbling and humiliating it is to discover how easily one can become a puppet on a string.

This “Hacienda” scam is common. Imagine: more than 20,000 contributors to Hacienda, all possible victims. Another common one is the bank scam, but I don’t know that one. Also, if you advertise an item in a newspaper, a person will call, insisting on depositing money into your account, without even seeing the item (car, motorcycle, etc). Then they do some strange maneuvers where they supposedly have a bank person on call to resolve some issue that came up. (Again, I have not been a victim of this one, so I can’t give the details.) They use fake emails and phone numbers that replicate the real phone numbers and emails of  the banks.

I am lucky that I had just bought something expensive the week before, so I did not have much money to lose. Others lost hundreds of thousands, as my accountant told me. But still, I lost all the money I had to my name. All of it.

The worst thing about this kind of crime is the victim blaming and shaming. We ourselves gave away all the information. The banks shake their heads when you report it. And you know what they and your other friends who have not been victims are thinking, “How could you do something so stupid?” They instruct you, “You should never give this kind of information to anyone over the phone.” As if you don’t know that. As if you don’t hear this from your bank all the time. As if it is your fault that this happened. Tsk, tsk.

The words that capture the experience when it is over are: “Shocking,” “Unbelievable,” and — same meaning — “Incredible.” And that is also how people react: with incredulity that you could do something like that. Compassion is dimmed by this self-satisfied knowing that they would never do this. This will simply NOT happen to them.

And, yet, sadly, the truth is, too many will say, “It happened to me.”

I hope people will comment below describing some of the tactics that were used on them when they were scammed. Hopefully this will reduce the amount of scams. But it won’t eliminate them. There is too much money to be criminally gained, and these folks are brilliant at turning their victims into puppets on a string. Terrifying.

It does not help to say “Do not give any financial information over the phone.” We all know this. My only suggestion is to keep your bank token in an envelope marked “Hang Up!!” away from your computer, maybe in a box somewhere so you have to go out of your way to get it. Hopefully, this will break the spell. I am not sure it will, however, since it seems like we are hypnotized during the scam. But it may.

My last words are, “It is not your fault.” You were the victim of a brilliant psychological strategy that rendered you powerless to put up any resistance to someone’s manipulative commands. It is NOT your fault.

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