What would Claudia Valentine do? The crime writer who was scammed

The plan of action. Go to a big supermarket and buy 10 x $100 Steam Cards. I don’t know what Steam Cards are. “Gift cards, Madam. Let me know the last four digits of your credit card so that Telstra can deposit the amount to cover the purchase.” It’s late in the day, can’t we do this tomorrow? I feel anxious about even leaving the house. “We’ll lose our chance to catch the hackers if we wait.” It has to be now.

I remember a hidden resource, go to my brain’s archived files and activate Claudia Valentine, protagonist of my crime novels, a braver, more flamboyant alter ego. As requested I give James Grey the last four digits of my credit card number. He briefs me, warns that I might be advised that this is a scam, and assures me that it is not. It’s a covert operation that I must not discuss with anyone. If challenged as to why I am purchasing the cards I am to make something up.

My heroine’s bravado has deserted me: Marele Day at the launch of “Chinese Boxes”, a Claudia Valentine novel, in 1990.Credit:Bruce Miller

The reality of the operation is not as exhilarating as its promise. By the time I walk into the supermarket Claudia Valentine’s bravado has deserted me. I’m nervous, can’t help feeling I’m being watched. I have to ask where the cards are. The secrecy imposes some sort of pressure, makes it feel like I’m delivering ransom money. When I go to the checkout the cashier eyes me, wants to know who the cards are for. Panic is rising, perhaps she won’t let me have them. I make something up. “My nephew. A birthday gift.” The cashier has the look of a border guard deciding whether to let someone with a false passport through. Reluctantly she does the transaction. “I suggest you read what it says on the receipt,” she says handing it over with the cards. I’m so relieved to leave the supermarket that the oddness of her comment doesn’t even register.

I relay the numbers on the cards to James Grey. “Well done, Madam. I’ll report back in the morning.”

The cashier has the look of a border guard deciding whether to let someone with a false passport through.

It’s early when James Grey phones. We exchange pleasantries, then he announces the exciting news that “we” have caught seven of the 10 hackers. However the mastermind is still at large. “Madam, with your help we will catch him too. A gift card is not lure enough for the mastermind, for him we need an International Money Transfer of $10,000. Telstra will of course deposit that sum into your account.” James Grey’s storm becomes even more perfect. When Lambs of God went into production I received a fee. Without that bolster to my savings I doubt I would consider risking such a large sum, even with James Grey’s assurance that Telstra cyber security works in conjunction with the major Australian banks, that the transaction will be “completely safe and guaranteed”.

Online James Grey shows me the before and after, and yes, my bank account now has an extra $10,000. What I don’t notice is that my other account has $10,000 less.

I go to my local branch with the necessary details for an International Money Transfer to the ICICI bank in Mumbai. “Purpose of the transaction?” asks the teller. None of the wariness shown by the supermarket cashier, it’s simply required information for the transfer form. I make something up. “Payment for publishing services.”

When the transaction is completed I inform James Grey. “Excellent, Madam. I will phone this afternoon, hopefully with good news.” Ten minutes later there’s a call from my bank’s head office, wanting to confirm that the IMT is bona fide. Hasn’t Telstra informed them of the covert operation? “I can tell by your hesitancy that it’s not,” says the woman from head office. “We believe you’ve been scammed.” She describes the modus operandi exactly. I’m free-falling. “We’ve sent an urgent message to the bank in India but it may already be too late. It will take weeks before we know for sure.”

Aftermath. That afternoon there are 17 calls in 20 minutes. I don’t know if it’s “James Grey” trying to find out what went wrong or to ask for even more money. Either way I don’t pick up. I am immobilised, afraid to touch anything. The whole house feels contaminated. Eventually I play back the messages. Most are blank but occasionally there’s background noise – partying, laughing. At my expense. I turn up the volume and make out a female voice: “I’m calling from Telstra. Malicious junk is being downloaded onto your internet places.” The scammers are reading from a common script. A whole call centre of them preying on idiots like me. I disconnect the phone, yank it out of the wall socket. In the silence I can still hear the ringing.

When the TV series adapted from my book Lambs of God went into production, I had received a fee.

When the TV series adapted from my book Lambs of God went into production, I had received a fee. Credit:Mark Rogers

In the next few days the painters finish the job and leave. Normal life does not resume. My partner is admitted to hospital. I wish I were there too. Instead I’m home alone, unravelled, undone.

I drag myself through the process of shoring up the damage. I am locked out of internet banking while the bank investigates. They advise me to get new accounts, change passwords. Cancel all direct debits and switch to BPAY. I take the infected computer to get fixed. It feels like handling an unexploded land mine.

I report the scam to Telstra, ask them to block all overseas calls. The phone keeps ringing. Not only the landline but my mobile, the last three digits changing each time. The calls are being generated by a machine and Telstra doesn’t have the capability to stop them. I’m spiralling into paranoia. Is this really Telstra I’m having the conversation with or the scammers? If they are able to bypass my service provider’s block who knows what they’re capable of?

I suspect my phone is being bugged, go to a friend’s “safe house” and make all other necessary calls from there. Notify Scamwatch, ring the Police Assistance Line. They generate a report. My local police will be in touch. Another week doesn’t lessen the impact of the scam, I’m still in its thrall. I go for drives, or simply sit in the capsule of my car where no-one can get to me. No contact from the local cops so I phone them. “How could you go along with it?” the officer asks.

I suspect my phone is being bugged, go to a friend’s ‘safe house’ and make all other necessary calls from there.

It’s the question booming in my own head. I try not to beat myself up about falling for the scam but I’m trapped in its endless loop, searching for ways out. Why didn’t I read the email more carefully, check both bank accounts, tell the cashier and the bank teller the truth instead of “making something up”.

I find the supermarket receipt. At the bottom is a Gift Card Scam Alert: Government agencies and legitimate businesses will never demand payment or ask you to help catch a scammer with iTunes or other gift cards. Phone ATO on 1800 008 540 or visit www.scamwatch.gov.au. The cashier was trying to alert me but I took no heed. Too late. Another why didn’t I gets added to the list.

A month later I hear from the bank – they have not been able to retrieve the money. I drive to the sea, watch the dawn light colour the edge of the horizon. What did my $10,000 buy those bastards?

I can’t let it be. Those predators are still out there roaming free. Despite the discouraging reaction from the local police, I make a recording of those phone messages with background noise and take them to the station as “evidence”. A more sympathetic constable patiently listens to my story, copies the messages. Then: “There’s very little we can do.”

In 2018 losses reported to Australian government agencies such as Scamwatch amounted to $489.7 million. For 2019 it was more than half a billion dollars. How deep the well of unreported losses. Scammers offer investment opportunities, romance, unexpected windfalls. The chance to help catch crooks. They are sophisticated, keep changing the game. Masquerade as Medicare, Microsoft, Australian Tax Office. The Telstra scam has undoubtedly already morphed into something else. If I encounter a scam in a different disguise, will I recognise it?

I’ve lost so much more than money – I have lost self-image, a sense of who I am. Scams have been attempted before, by phone, email, text messages, but I’ve never fallen for them. Now my bullshit detector is damaged, perhaps irreparably. I have been catapulted into old age, a trusting elderly person, easily duped, tricked, my better nature taken advantage of. Virtues I held dear have been brought into doubt – being true to one’s word, keeping a promise, a secret. I kept my word. I did what I was asked to do, was compliant. I went along with a lie. And in “making something up”, I lied too.

I’ve never had therapy (a friend once recommended saving my neuroses for my writing) but now is the time. I opt for EMDR, a somatic therapy which reprocesses trauma by bilateral stimulation of the brain. It involves a metronome, earphones with oceanic sounds, and the therapist gently tapping my hands. “Take yourself back to the events, imagine them as a movie. You are watching but not really involved.” In the therapeutic calmness I am able to distance myself from the scam. A tiny part of me even finds it vaguely amusing. Perfect Storm in a Teacup.

Virtues I held dear have been brought into doubt – being true to one’s word, keeping a promise, a secret.

The following year Lambs of God premieres at the Sydney Film Festival to a packed cinema. My partner is well enough to attend. Life is still strange, out-of-the-ordinary, fragile but wondrous.

Resolution. Once I make the decision to write the story of the scam I discover what was keeping me in its loop – there was no satisfying ending. So I invent one. I strip the scammers of their shapeshifting omnipotence and confine them to desks in their call centre. Scripts and charts are pinned to noticeboards. Suddenly a door is flung open throwing light on it all. Police bristling with machine guns and batons charge in. Busted. “Up against the wall, mother f-ers!” The rats are in the trap. The laughter stops, James Grey pisses himself.H e and his cronies are arrested, convicted, sentenced to jail time. Case closed. When they leave court they cover their faces.

Now when memories of the scam return I find myself glossing over the actual events and cutting straight to the satisfying ending. Sometimes I embellish even further, imagine the scammers in stocks in the village square, being bombarded with insults and overripe tomatoes. Eventually that fades too. I turn over and go to sleep, let it be.

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