Disabled Knoxville man loses nearly $50K to scammers

Investigations

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – A disabled Knoxville man has found himself deep in debt and wonders why he ever believed he had won money. All it takes are a few key taps on their computer and scammers can ruin the lives of many unsuspecting victims.

The scammers who hoodwinked a Knoxville man are much richer now. The ruse they used is an old one, but the methods are new. With personal information widely available on social media and with many willing to share it, all scammers have to do is clone a fake message on Facebook or Facebook Messenger and if they get a bite from an unsuspecting victim, they never give up.

Michael, who did not want his last name published, is moving into a smaller apartment in South Knoxville. He’s broke and in deep debt. Not long after he was burned in an accidental house fire last May, he fell for a scam.

Michael’s recovery from the burns took months.

“After the accident it was rough. I got laid off my job,” Michael said.

Michael said he had some savings, but not much. While recuperating, Michael says Debbie, an old friend, sent a text saying due to his disability he was eligible for money.  

“[She said] that she had received a $150,000 check and my name was on the list too,” Michael said. “. I trusted Debbie. Like I said, we grew up together. She said I would have to put some money towards it.”

Michael says his friend Debbie told him to reach out to a man named Brandon Smith in Lagos, Nigeria. Michael was to pay some advance fees using gift cards to receive his cash reward.

“I have probably about seven or eight, maybe even $10,000 worth of gift cards,” he said.

Once the scammer had Michael hooked, he wanted more from him. He showed WATE receipts for iPhones that he was ordered to send to Nigeria. Michael didn’t ask why. 

“These are the Apple bags for the phones I had to get. Each bag contained about six or seven phones each time,” he said.

He was told the UPS facility in North Knoxville is where the $150,000 would be sent. But more fees were needed to pick it up the money and the scammers were shifty. Michael’s Discover card was targeted next. 

“It maxed out my credit card so much. I put $32,000 on my Discover card,” he said.

Since then, he’s changed his account number. 

“They managed to get into my bank account,” said Michael, showing a bank statement where thousands of dollars were taken.

Michael says he lost close to $50,000.

“He actually gave me tracking numbers for delivery of the check,” said Michael.

At one point Michael questioned Brandon Smith. Smith sent a reply saying: “I’m not cheating you, don’t think of me as a bad person.” 

By this time Michael’s savings were gone. He admits he was naive.  

“I think I’m an idiot. I know I’m an idiot. I just had hope,” Michael said.

The national publication Consumer Reports released an article last year explaining why some people are vulnerable to scams.  Facing a rough patch is one of them. It fits right in with Michael’s circumstances: loss of a job and recovering from his injuries mounting medical bills.    

A Federal Trade Commission study found your odds of being scammed more than double when you experience some sort of life trauma that a person’s cognitive capacity to spot scams diminishes according to the report.   

Michael realizes now his friend Debbie never sent that initial message. It came directly from the scammers.

“Even if it’s a friend who texts you saying you have won something, don’t believe it is true because once you start sending stuff like this it just escalates. It just ripped me off,” Michael said.

Michael believed that $150,000 check would be delivered by UPS. The worldwide delivery company is aware that fraudulent communications by third parties using the UPS brand is prevalent.

On its website, UPS provides a warning that “unscrupulous” third parties will claim a package is waiting to be delivered at a nearby facility. UPS says before paying anyone in advance, verify the local phone number and call it, making sure it is the real UPS facility.

Michael says he wishes he had known of this warning many months ago.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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