“Gullible’s Travels” Continues

Some of you may recall my blog post series from years earlier entitled “Gullible’s Travels.” Here is another entry:

At 11:46 AM on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, my iMac computer froze up and went haywire with an arrow darting all over the place. Onto the screen came the message: “Urgent! Your computer has been hacked. Call Apple Security immediately. You are at great risk.” A phone number was listed.

So, in desperation I immediately called the Apple computer number and was connected first to an operator and then to Harry Martin, who said that he was with Apple Security and would be pleased to help me with all computer security matters. He had what seemed to me like a Slavic, or perhaps Russian, accent, which also seemed to be from an older man. This caught my attention since all the other Apple Help people I have dealt with—and I have dealt with a bunch– have had American accents and were probably in their 20s. Odd, I thought, but I was desperate.

Mr. Martin said that I needed to have my security upgraded, which he would be glad do for me; but for that to happen, I needed to give him control of my computer, which, of course, I did. It took about two hours for him to install the necessary software on the computer, but to see if any financial data had been compromised, he also needed to check my online bank accounts. “If you have been hacked,” he said, “chances are they have gone after your bank accounts. That is what these hackers are usually after. We must check those first.”

I told him my bank was PNC. With his software in place on my computer, he was able to log into my PNC account, which I enabled him to do. He asked me to tell him my pass my password “to make it easier for me.” I refused to give it to him and typed it in myself. Presto! My PNC account appeared on the screen, which he had access to and could see exactly how much money I had in my accounts. There did not seem to be any unusual transactions posted in the account. I was relieved. But as a courtesy, he linked me in phone conversation to a top security expert at PNC Bank. The familiar voice of the PNC Bank operator came on first and then linked me to a PNC “security expert,” whose name was Sam Williams. Mr. Williams also spoke with a similar Slavic accent. I was beginning to get suspicious, but I was curious as to how this was going to play out.

Mr. Williams introduced himself as a top security executive at PNC Bank and assured me that the bank had my account as their number one concern and would do all they could to help me. It took about 15 minutes or so for him to check all the accounts, including recent transactions and said that it appeared that in fact according to their records, three suspicious transfers from my account had been recorded a few minutes earlier and were due to happen in the next hour. All payments from my account were to accounts in Mexico and totaled about $15,000. I confirmed that the transactions were fraudulent and requested that the bank stop the transfer. He said he would do that, but that due to “international banking regulations and commitments by PNC,” there was only a 20–30-minute window that PNC had to keep the transfers from happening and that I had to act fast.

He linked me into conversation  with another PNC employee whose name was Justin Lee, who said he was head of the “PNC Encryption Department” and would immediately stop the funds from going to Mexico. He was understanding and sympathetic. But given the short time frame, the only way that the transfer could be stopped would be for me to take all the money out of my checking and savings accounts using the ATM at my local PNC branch. In addition, the money must be exclusively in $20 bills. I should notify him when I had the money in hand, and then would give me further instructions.

If you are concluding that I am an idiot, you are not that far off base. My only excuse is that while I now was convinced that this was likely a fraud, I was curious as to how it would play out.

But when he directed me to go to the ATM immediately and take out all my money in $20 bills, that was the last straw. I had had enough.

When I objected to taking the money out of the ATM, he jumped in saying the situation was dire and that once the transfer of funds happened, I would have no chance of recovering the money. But he had a solution: He would instruct me how to convert the funds to bitcoins and deposit them into a safe account in another financial institution, where I could retrieve the funds at my convenience. By this time, he was pleading with me.

He cautioned me to say nothing to the bank about this because several employees of the branch where my money was deposited were under investigation by the bank for possible fraud. If I said anything to the suspects about this “incident,” they might be able to avoid arrest.

Game over. I burst out laughing. “Good try, fellas,” I chuckled, then with  a touch of outrage,” I am reporting you to the police!” I hung up. How could anyone be so stupid to fall for such a scam? Yet, I had to give them credit for a well-orchestrated con. It must work sometimes, or they would not be doing this, right?

It took about an hour to straighten things out with PNC Bank. No fraudulent activities had been observed and nothing was unusual. They assured me that this happens more often than you would  think and that  the account was secure. However, they suggested I change my bank and computer password, which, of course, I did. And then it took another hour or so to get Apple to clean up my computer and put on new security.

 I tried calling back the “Apple Security” and “PNC Bank” numbers that initiated the scam. No one answered the calls.

And today, April 11, at 8:07 A.M., a new warning came across my computer screen and my iPhone screen from “Apple Security” warning me that all my passwords had been stolen and that I had to act quickly. Then the message disappeared and has not shown up again.

 Rest assured. I am not taking the bait this time.




My 80th Birthday: Four Surprises

Milestone birthdays in the Howell family have typically been the occasions for surprises. On my 40th Embry and I climbed Old Rag Mountain in western Virginia followed by dinner at the Graves Mountain Lodge with my parents and Embry’s mother and our two children, ages 12 and eight. On that occasion we were also joined by about a  half dozen close friends who showed up to my complete surprise. On my 50th our daughter, Jessica, invited me to a quiet dinner with her where we would be joined later by Embry. Our son, Andrew, was away in college. The restaurant was located in the heart of artsy Takoma Park in DC with lots of art galleries. We passed by one gallery, which was crowded with people viewing framed, black and white photographs on the walls. I took a second look through the large gallery window from the street and recognized a lot of friends, which for a moment puzzled me. Then I realized that the exhibit was showing my photographs!  Andrew was dressed up in a white, tux shirt and black bowtie and serving drinks. Jessica, who responsible for this surprise, was sheepishly giggling. Everyone applauded when we entered the gallery followed by a boisterous singing of “Happy Birthday.” On the 60th we were in the BVIs sailing with Jessica, her husband, Peter, Andrew, and his girlfriend at the time, so there were no surprises though we had a fabulous cruise for the week. And on the 70th we were in London visiting Andrew, who was working there at the time, his wife Karen and their daughter, Sadie, where we were joined on my birthday by several surprise guests–dear friends, Roger and Geraldine, who lived near Liverpool, Sam, my college roommate, and his wife, Diane, then Jessica and Peter, and their two children. I think there were also a couple of others. I can’t remember all the details or how they all were able to show up in London. But it was quite a party and quite a weekend.

So, with that kind of history, you would expect another surprise on a milestone 80th birthday, right? Well, not me. Everyone is still recovering  as covid-time is winding down. Large gatherings are still discouraged, and besides we had just seen our children and grandchildren the weekend before. This time there would be no surprises. I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. The plan was to have a quiet dinner with Embry at the Capital Grill, an upscale steakhouse not far from the Capitol, and be done with it.

The morning of my birthday, April Fool’s Day, I checked my email to see a message from “Kudoboard,” a sender I was not familiar with. I clicked on it. For the better part of an hour, I read the birthday comments and viewed photographs from dear friends from all over the country and the world—over fifty people—and was overwhelmed. Surprise Number One. Embry had an early morning commitment and was not around when I viewed the birthday wishes, reminisces, and photos  on my iPhone. When she returned, I viewed them all again with her, this time using the desktop computer. We both were in tears. Many of you who are reading this, I suspect, contributed. I am profoundly grateful and humbled. The mastermind behind all this was Andrew and I remain in awe that he could pull this off.

The rest of the day was quiet until dinner at the Capital Grill. When we were escorted to our table, there were Andrew and Jessica! What were they doing here? Andrew had come down from Maplewood, NJ on Amtrack, and Jessica had flown down from Portland, Maine. Well beyond the call of duty though I was very touched that they made the effort. Surprise Number Two.

Following a terrific meal, we returned to our apartment where both children would spend the night. Before we all turned in, Andrew beckoned me to turn on my computer where he typed in “Joseph Toy Howell III” and up popped  a Wikipedia page featuring meSurprise Number Three. Now this may not seem like a big deal to you, but for me it was huge. I do not recall saying anything to my kids about this, but for a long time my heart’s desire had been to be listed in Wikipedia. In fact, I once even had a dream that I typed my name in, and there I was. If you make it onto Wikipedia, then you must be famous or at least notable, right? As Embry will tell you, I have always wanted to be famous or notable. Of course, the challenge was that I was—and am—neither, but somehow my son cobbled together enough “accomplishments” that Joseph Toy Howell III passed the Wikipedia test. Apparently, there are still “citations” that they require, which might mean the page will fade away into the ether, but for one shining moment, there I was on Wikipedia. Me. Joseph Toy Howell III. My life is now complete.

But I must tell you that making it onto a Wikipedia page is one thing. Having your son think you are worthy enough to be there and figuring out how to make that happen is something else. That is the real story here and what I am most proud of and grateful for.

I went to bed the evening of April 1 feeling appreciated and affirmed and grateful for the 80 years I have spent on this fragile planet.

But there was one more surprise to come and that occurred the following morning when Jessica insisted that we walk up to the Washington National Cathedral where one of her close friends, a singer and artist and also a friend of ours, was performing with some group she is in. Any normal person would think there was something fishy about a performance in the Bishop’s Garden adjacent to the cathedral at ten in the morning, but not me. Andrew and I, followed by Embry, walked up to the cathedral from our apartment (about a mile and a half) arriving just after 10 where there was no evidence of any performance but a lot of evidence of Surprise Number Four—dear friends, mainly from the neighborhood, and dear relatives–packed into the gazebo in the Bishop’s Garden with yet another round of “Happy Birthday,” coffee, bagels and, of course, a birthday cake. The weather was perfect with temperatures in the mid 60s, no wind, a Carolina blue sky and the garden in its spring splendor with cherry blossoms bursting out everywhere. This event was planned and executed by Jessica Ellis, the very same Jessica, who 30 years before pulled off perhaps the biggest of all surprise birthday events at the Takoma Park art gallery.

Folks, I have been blessed. There is nothing more to add.