SHE FEELS AS if she is a smart person and not one to fall for clever scams.

But, like many others, she did.

And like other trusting souls, the Waterville woman didn’t realize she’d been taken until it was too late.

Kathleen — not her real name — got a phone call Sept. 29 from a man claiming he was Dominique Taylor representing the Internal Revenue Service and that she owed back taxes from the last seven years totaling $2,800. Furthermore, he told her he had a warrant for her arrest and if she did not pay half of that amount right away, she’d be put in jail. He warned if she discussed the phone call with anyone, she would be arrested for discussing a federal matter.

Kathleen, whose real name I agreed not to use in this case because she is afraid of being victimized again, was interviewing for jobs at the time and did not want an arrest on her resume. She also had recently moved from Portland to Waterville and assumed that if the IRS had mailed her any bills, she may not have received them. So circumstances were lined up perfectly for her to believe the caller really was from the IRS.

The caller gave Kathleen, 37, specific instructions as to how she should pay her bill. She was to go to Staples, Rite Aid or Family Dollar and purchase gift cards for iTunes, Bluebird or American Express. He told her to stay on the phone with him while she purchased the cards, which she did, at both Staples and Rite Aid.

“While I’m on the phone with him at Staples, he gets my email address and sends me an email to confirm my payment,” she recalled. “The email looked legitimate. I bought seven, $100 iTunes cards. I came back to the car. I gave him all the numbers on the backs of the cards. He put me on hold, and he came back a few minutes later and said, ‘You need to pay another $745.’ I went to Rite Aid and bought seven more iTunes cards for $100 each and three $15 cards.”

As she was purchasing the cards, she wrote a note and slipped it to the clerk that said, “I’m being audited.” She said the clerk looked at her funny and then proceeded to sell her the 10 cards, one-by-one, but said nothing.

It wasn’t until Kathleen got to her Waterville apartment afterward that she realized she’d been scammed. She called police and filled out a police report. While the officer was very nice, he said that there was nothing he really could do and advised her to call iTunes. She did, but the people at Apple, which owns iTunes, said they could not refund her money because the cards had already been redeemed. They said she should contact the stores where she bought the cards to seek a refund, she said. Kathleen said she went to Rite-Aid and Staples again but was told she could not get a refund.

Meanwhile, Kathleen, who was working as a certified nurse’s aide at the time, was out $1,445, which she did not have to begin with.

“That’s a whole month’s pay for me,” she said. “It was the remainder of my 401K … I can’t believe I let that happen because I am smarter than that. But I don’t watch a lot of TV, so I hadn’t heard about the scam. I am trusting. I believe that people are good. They’re not. So value the ones that are.”

Kathleen says she will not fall prey to another scam, but she worries about others, particularly the elderly, who may become targets.

“I felt like I was held at gunpoint — like the phone was a gun,” she said. “It took me three days for my blood pressure to come down. It can happen to anyone under the right circumstances, and that’s how I fell victim, because I had been in transition and had just moved to Waterville. He played me like a fiddle. I gave him way too much information. I felt like every room in my house had been broken into at the same time and I was glued to the floor and couldn’t stop it.”

Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey says no one should ever send money if a caller requests it, that most companies, particularly government entities, do business through the mail and on an official letterhead.

“You just simply should never respond to a telephone call asking you for personal information or money,” Massey said Wednesday. “Just never, never, never do it.”

Instead, he says, when someone calls, either hang up or tell him you will check your records and get back to him. Look up the company name and number online or in the phone book to make sure the number is correct and then call the company, according to Massey.

“That way, there is no mistake on your part that you’re dealing with a legitimate company or government entity,” he said.

Massey said he himself got a call from someone purportedly from an electric company saying his electricity would be cut off if he did not pay money.

“I said, ‘Really?’ ” Massey recalled. ” ‘Well, how about this? Let’s you and I meet in person — I like to make payments in person.’ He hung up.”

Kathleen, meanwhile, is not satisfied with the answer she got from Apple about not refunding her money. She has had a lot of time to think about what happened, and it’s clear that iTunes profits from the scam because it makes money, she said. She also wonders aloud if the companies that sell the cards are not completely without blame.

“Why wouldn’t the tellers flinch at someone buying seven $100 gift cards?” she asks. “It’s not even Christmas, and I’m paying in cash and I’ve got someone on the phone. Why was that not a sign to them?”

She thinks companies need to set up a system for loss prevention and notify store clerks to raise red flags if someone purchases gift cards in large amounts of money, particularly if the customer is on the telephone with someone while buying the cards. She maintains the companies that issue the cards need to devise a system to help protect unsuspecting victims.

“They’re in essence giving these scam artists permission to do it,” Kathleen said. “They’re still getting their money. I’m not, and I work very hard for mine.”

An Apple spokesman who dealt with Kathleen’s case said he was not able to speak about a customer’s complaint because of the company’s privacy policy. Instead, he referred me to a website that has information about iTunes gift card scams. Staples did not return a call seeking comment.

A pleasant-sounding spokeswoman from Rite Aid said in a phone call Wednesday said she would look into Kathleen’s complaint and get back to me, which she did on Thursday.

Ashley Flower, senior manager for public relations at Rite Aid Corporation, emailed me a statement that says: “We’ve looked into this matter and have determined that our associates acted appropriately, advising the customer of their concerns and even offering to call the local authorities. Only at the customer’s insistence did we complete the requested transaction. Rite Aid associates are trained to look for suspicious activity and to talk to customers to make sure they know who and where they are sending money to, to avoid fraud and scams.”

Kathleen appeared shocked when I read her the response from Rite Aid.

“That’s not true,” she said. “That didn’t happen.”

Kathleen said the counter clerk never offered to call the authorities, never spoke to her at all as she purchased the gift cards, even when Kathleen slipped her a note that said she was being audited.

“She didn’t advise me of anything,” Kathleen said. “Look at the store video, and it will show what happened.”

I again emailed Flower, of Rite Aid Corp., and explained Kathleen’s version of what had occurred and asked Flower if she still wanted me to use her original comment, or if she would look into the issue further.

“We stand by our statement,” Flower wrote back.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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