Clinician’s Experience of Being Scammed

“I can’t talk about the thing I am scared of.” These were the first words I wrote in the aftermath of being scammed. My wife/partner encouraged me to write some reflections to process this traumatic experience and that’s what came out.

Many, if not most of us have learned some version of “don’t talk about it” to avoid an issue that doesn’t feel safe to discuss in the open. That was certainly true for me. There were issues in my household growing up that were obvious, but there was no permission to break the silence. A clear reason I went into counseling as a profession was because I had experienced the value of breaking the silence of family secrets and talking with those I could trust about the things that caused me to feel fear, hurt, sadness and shame.

Talking about these uncomfortable issues and feelings brought significant peace of mind along with acceptance and trust within myself resulting in deepening family and friendship relationships. I also brought the desire to support others by having courageous conversations about the pain they had been carrying, a work I have been doing with The Fountain Hill Center for over 20 years.

Yesterday as I was stepping out of my vehicle, my neighbor was also stepping out of his car and our eyes met with him saying the old quip about living and learning. I said I have been doing that lately and he said he was open to hearing more of what I meant. So, I told him how last month, June 2023, I received an email from a trusted source, an email I was even expecting. when I clicked on the link and got a bright red warning sign that said Identity ‘Theft – do not shut computer off’ with a phone number for Microsoft. I called the number and then with a moment of clarity I thought-bad-idea- so disconnected. Seconds later I got a call back – which was what began a cascade of events where I had no more moments of clarity. The person identified himself and his ID number from Microsoft and shared that I had my identity taken and that my IP address has been used in internet crimes. Next thing I recall – and it’s all quite foggy now – I was speaking with some governmental official who said I was in trouble with these crimes, but he would help me.

I told my neighbor that I am still in some shock that this traumatic event happened to me and while we lost some money, I am aware of others who have incurred much more staggering monetary losses from scams. According to the FBI, losses due to scams in the US have cost our citizens over 10 billion dollars in 2022 – a significant jump from 4 billion in 2020 when the pandemic began. My neighbor knew, what is obvious to many of you reading this, that shutting down the computer would have been the best action to take. But the overriding message I heard from him was – “the hardest thing about these experiences is the sense of shame and that you see yourself as a fool.” He and so many other family, colleagues, and friends have been so gracious, understanding, and compassionate.

Computer techs and cyber security specialists have also been extremely helpful reminding me that scams especially during the pandemic have accelerated and have become highly sophisticated to include imposter scams which was what I experienced. (Imposter scams remain the top fraud category in 2023 with reported losses of 2.7 billion dollars.) They have also told me that all of us are vulnerable and that they see all kinds of people and professionals being victims of these schemes.

I told my neighbor that while I was in graduate school in southern California in the late 70’s, it was quite apparent I was being recruited by two guys about my age (in their 20’s) associated with a cult. They asked me to come out and visit a community farm they were a part of and find friendship. I told them I had friends and wasn’t interested. There also have been loads of phone messages I have rebuffed which said I need to call to take care of something – that all seemed fishy. These experiences I was able to avoid but likely it would have been better for me to see myself as fortunate rather than above it. On some level, we can all be vulnerable to things.

Being scammed has been very painful but also humbling because I need to see myself as someone who is just as vulnerable to these scams as the next person which the paragraph above indicates. I had the perception that some scam would not happen to me. In fact, as a person who clearly falls into the senior citizen age (65+), I may be even more susceptible.

What I regretted the most during the two-day ordeal was the fact that I was not able to break the secret of what was going on with me from my wife and adult son. People who perpetrate abuse of scams will often use the tactic of ‘you can’t talk about this with anyone.’ As illogical as that may seem, overwhelming fear will often keep us humans quiet.

I have worked as a counselor for over three decades, yet I was so caught in this con that I would not talk about the thing that was scaring me. I have experienced a number of other traumas in my life, but I have never felt more violated than during this 48-hour nightmare. I know I am now committed to being much more wary of scams and to not fall into the trap of isolation again.

Internet Tech professionals, my therapist colleagues and closest friends are all expressing that I was a victim of fraud and that it’s not my fault. That has been a helpful relief. What has also been immensely helpful is that I received a session of EMDR trauma reduction treatment that has provided significant relief. Nonetheless the feelings of vulnerability and shame have been palpable, and I now have a deeper understanding of why and how people can feel so trapped, scared, and ashamed that they can’t verbalize what is happening.

The best prevention for me going forward is trusting the relationships in my life and to not trust any message that says I need to “go it alone.” Of course, there are other safeguards regarding our devices, emails and bank accounts that can be implemented, yet is so clear to me now that I need to talk about the thing that scares me and if I am ever in doubt about anything, I need to air on the side of speaking up and asking for help with those I trust, breaking the silence and putting the secret out in the open.

Even with my best efforts ( or the best efforts of any of us) the reality of being human is ever present. betrayal, abuse, or being traumatized in any way can result in the self-belief that “I am at fault” in some way, form, or fashion. “If I hadn’t walked down that street, this assault would not have happened.” “If I didn’t go out with this person then I could have avoided that betrayal.” “If I hadn’t called that phone number on the screen then I would not have gotten scammed”

It is especially important to learn from our experiences so we can make different choices in the future. It is the human condition that makes us all vulnerable to being hurt, violated, betrayed, or abused despite our best intentions, learning, and choices. It is the human condition to have the experience of being a victim. When that happens, it simply does no good to blame ourselves for being a victim, yet we can be compelled, as I have been, to do just that.

But why? The truth for me is that I believe I should be in control of my life (which is how many of us think). When I am not in control then it follows, I must have done something wrong. I have reminded clients over the years that they can potentially have influence over other people or situations, but they can only control their own choices, actions, and attitudes. So, when someone else’s choices, actions, or attitudes hurt us, with whom does the responsibility ultimately rest? Not with me, not with us I would say. The responsibility I do have is to work at recovery, to become wiser, but to let go of blaming myself for being a victim.

I also want to express gratitude to my bank who reached out to me and my family during this episode. Without their intervention and support the financial loss would have been greater.

I must finally say this has been incredibly challenging for me. I need to work at letting it go, but I cannot let it go alone. I keep reminding myself of the words my adult son said to me in the aftermath of being scammed. “It’s over, it’s only money, you were not in your right mind, you are not invincible and there is not shame.”

~Al Heystek July 2023

The Fountain Hill Center

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