She doesn’t want to be identified, because she feels like “a bloody fool”. But she’s no fool. She’s a victim of a bloodless, gutless and merciless crime that threatens to empty the bank accounts of Broken Hill citizens. For the purposes of this story, we’ll call her Margot.
Her story begins ten days ago, with a phone call that seemed fair dinkum to her.
“He said he was from the Australian Federal Police,” said Margot.
“He had a lot of authority in his voice. There was also noise in the background that was convincing – people talking and papers rustling and things like that.
“He asked me my name and address and when I told him he said something that made me think he already knew, like he was just checking to see he had the right one.”
In an accent Margot described as “a little bit Chinese, or something”, the man then told her a story that chilled her to the bone: Her identity had been stolen, he said, and been used to commit crimes.
“He said it wasn’t just a small turnout, but a big gang that had been importing drugs worth millions of dollars.
“He said I was in a lot of trouble.”
The trouble, said the man, was not with the police – they understood Margot had been used – but came from the syndicate that had stolen her identity, who were watching her every move, intent on protecting their investment.
“He said they had spies all over Broken Hill watching me,” she said, “and that they could be anyone, even people I thought were my friends.”
There was only one way out of this mess, said the man: Margot must do whatever he told her.
“He said I had to stay on the phone, go to my car and drive to the nearest shopping centre,” said Margot.
“He said I was not to stop and talk to anyone, or wave to anyone or anything.”
Once at the shopping centre, Margot followed the man’s instructions, by removing as much cash as an ATM would allow. He said it was important Margot empty her bank account in case the syndicate began to smell a rat and emptied it for her.
“It was all about moving my money to a safer place,” said Margot. “He warned me against going into the bank itself, because he said there was a chance the tellers were probably involved.”
With the $1000 she was able to withdraw, Margot then, as instructed, entered the shop and purchased a series of gift cards, being careful not to make eye contact with any other shoppers or checkout staff who, she was warned, might be secret operatives for the syndicate, too.
“By this point I was just completely paranoid,” Margot recalls. “I was shaking and really terrified. I’d been on the phone to him for, like, an hour already.”
She was then instructed to photograph the gift cards and send the pictures to the man on the phone. Once she’d done so, she was told to drive to her home and wait. But the caller had one more task he wanted Margot to perform.
“He told me to give him my bank account details, my driver’s licence, my passwords, everything.
“He said this was needed to protect my details from the criminals, and to follow their actions.
“I was so exhausted by the whole experience by this stage that I did whatever he told me.”
Then Margot was told to sit tight, stay off the phone, refuse to answer the door to anyone, and await further instructions from the AFP.
So began a long and anxious night for Margot as she sat, sleepless and terrified, a prisoner in her own home.
“I didn’t sleep a wink,” she recalled. “I was just so totally freaked out. I was just going over and over the whole thing and worried about what would happen next.”
It was mid-morning of the next day that Margot began to get hungry – she needed to go out to get some sustenance, and waiting for the phone to ring was driving her crazy. So she called the AFP, in Canberra, who had some good news and some bad news for Margot: The good news she was free to go, but the bad news …
“I’d been scammed,” she said. “I hung up and checked my account and it was empty. Everything was gone from my savings and everything was gone from my credit cards.
“They took everything.”
According to the Australian Federal Police, Margot is just one of many, the AFP switchboard lighting up with calls from some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
“Scammers take advantage of people’s trust in authorities and fear of doing the wrong thing,” says AFP Detective Superintendent, Jayne Crossling.
“Victims can feel an array of emotions – from helplessness and humiliation to anger and guilt – but it is important to know you are not to blame and help is available.
“The sooner people report fraud where the victim has suffered any financial loss, the better the chances that banks or authorities can help have funds returned.”
Detective Superintendent Crossling says the AFP would never contact people privately asking for money or personal information – that’s just not how police work – and that the best thing to do is to hang up and ignore all texts and emails that seem even slightly suspicious.
For Margot, the warning is too late.
“I feel like such a bloody fool,” she said.
“I hope I can get some of my money back.”
This article was first published on 6 October 2021.