A couple of weeks ago, I sold a few Higher Thought games at Singing Alive. One person had no cash so she paid me later through Zelle.
That evening I received a text from Zelle stating that I had to follow a link to “accept” the payment, which was weird; I’d never had to do that before. So I followed the link but the process was unclear.
I went to my bank the next day and they told me I should call Zelle. I got home about 2 p.m., and a friend was coming to pick me up and take us to the river at 2:15. I figured I maybe had just enough time to straighten out this Zelle business before she arrived, so I googled Zelle customer service on my cell phone, and I clicked the first link that came up, and then I went over to my landline (I hear better on the landline) and dialed the number.
A man with an extremely thick Indian accent answered, “Zelle, how can I help you?”
I briefly explained my dilemma.
He asked, “How much money is in your bank account?”
That was annoying. “Why do you need to know THAT?” I demanded.
He mumbled something about needing to know so that we could ascertain whether the money had arrived, which made no sense, and I was feeling very irritable about the whole business, and I burst out: “If you can’t help me, just say so! Don’t waste my time!” And then I immediately felt remorseful about being so rude.
The line clicked. Another Indian man came on the line. He identified himself as the supervisor and he asked my name and cell phone number, which I readily gave him, and I repeated to him my story of frustration.
Then he instructed me to open the Play Store on my cell phone and download the app Anydesk. I dutifully did so, assuming that it would enable him to guide me through the necessary steps to get my money.
I knew my friend might arrive at any moment and I really wanted to get this process completed first. So I quickly “trusted” the AnyDesk call that came to my cell phone (after all, the caller was identified as “Zelle”) and – together with the guy presumably witnessing my cell phone screen in real time – I went through all the steps I had gone through previously on my own, clicking the link in the Zelle-generated text message, identifying the “partner bank” where I keep my money, and logging into my account, password and all.
I noticed, as I typed my password into the phone, that the characters of my password actually DID APPEAR for a split second on my screen before resolving into asterisks. This concerned me slightly but I figured I was on the line with a legitimate tech support guy. Following his instructions, I clicked the “Send Money with Zelle” button on my account interface, but it got us nowhere, as it had gotten me nowhere earlier. That is, it led to no method of “accepting” a payment.
He asked, “Do you have Venmo or Paypal or something like that too?”
“Yes, I have Paypal,” I responded.
“Can you open your Paypal account now too please?”
I vaguely assumed he wanted to perform some arcane technical triangulation or perhaps verify my identity in one more way for security purposes. I really wanted to get this annoying business over with and I would have happily opened my Paypal account – with him watching via AnyDesk – but then I quickly glanced at my text messages.
My friend was already waiting outside for me in her car.
So I told the guy, “Look, I can’t do this now, thanks for trying to help,” and I hung up my landline phone, grabbed my towel and water bottle and backpack, and headed out the door, feeling flustered because I really would have preferred to have completed the process with the guy.
I left my cell phone on my desk. As far as I knew, the guy was still connected to it and could manipulate it via AnyDesk. But I wasn’t thinking about that.
Roughly 90 minutes later, lying on my beach towel, it dawned on me that something felt sketchy about that phone interaction and I told my friend about it, including the fact that the guy might have access to my bank account that very moment. She blanched. “Let’s go,” she said. “Right now.”
Riding home, the full peril of my situation blossomed in my mind. I suddenly felt naked to the world in a terribly vulnerable way. I recalled all the little warnings my cell phone had flashed at me before I accepted the guy’s AnyDesk call – all of which I’d blithely clicked through.
Why on earth did the guy from Zelle want to see my Paypal account? And why had the first guy asked about my account balance? Something was definitely not right.
What if my money was really all gone?? What on earth was I going to do? Kill myself? I admit it; that chickenshit thought flashed through my mind for a split second, and then I felt a surge through my body, as it ROARED at me in response: “Fuck you! I’m your PRIMARY asset, asshole! You’re not gonna throw ME away at the feet of some dispshit scammer!”
And so I realized that whatever was going to happen, I was going to stick around for it. I’d have to rally my resources somehow.
We arrived at my home. My cell phone was just as I’d left it – all the same windows were open on it as before; no new ones were opened and none had been closed.
I logged into my bank account on my desktop computer. Everything was there. My money had not been touched.
I changed my password and logged off. And then I uninstalled AnyDesk on my phone.
Meanwhile, the shell Zelle service page was still open on my cell phone. Looking a little closer now I saw that it said “24/7 support” and a little underneath that: “Today’s hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”
Googling Zelle support again (on my desktop now), that webpage no longer came up. I called the real Zelle and resolved my issue quickly, and reported the fraud.
I did not, however, feel entirely safe. It was extremely unsettling to understand unequivocally that I had provided sensitive access to a person who’d been out to steal all my money. And for all I knew, he had still had access to my cell phone all the while I was at the river.
I scoured the internet that evening, looking for info about similar scams. I read that once you uninstall AnyDesk, no one can access your phone through that app anymore. Most of what I read was reassuring. But one or two people wrote cautionary posts about “backdoor” malware that a scammer might install …
I took my phone to the Xfinity store the next day (Xfinity is my servicer). The guy I spoke with there stipulated that he was no tech expert, but if it were him, well, he’d switch out ALL of his devices! Who knew what mischief might have occurred during those hours before I uninstalled the AnyDesk app? And if my phone was networked with my desktop and laptop computers, they might all be infected. But, he repeated, he was no expert, and he recommended I maybe talk to the Geek Squad at Best Buy.
So I continued on to Best Buy, where a clear-eyed young woman at the Geek Squad counter listened calmly as I told my story in detail.
Then she looked at me steadily and said, “You’re fine. You did everything right. You’re safe.”
“But …” I said. “Those hours I was away … and he still had access to my phone … maybe he installed malware …”
“No,” she said. “Not possible. Anyway, that type of scammer won’t normally bring malware; they just try to trick you into sending them money. Set your mind at ease.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes. You did all the right things by changing your password and uninstalling the app. You’re fine. Have a good day, sir.” And she held out her hand to shake and offered a small professional smile.
I walked out of the store feeling restored. I felt secure again in life.
Meanwhile, the wildfires are raging. The planet is burning. War continues. Indigent and mentally disturbed people are loudly losing their minds on the streets of my city. Tens of millions of Americans are gearing up to vote for Donald Trump again.
I care about all these things, but somehow none of them seem quite as wired into my first chakra (the survival drive chakra) as my bank account numbers, those teeny bits of data that live in computer banks. And that’s just interesting.
One other takeaway. If my friend hadn’t arrived to drive us to the river right when she did, I would not have hesitated to open my Paypal account on my cell phone, while on the line with the scammer. He’d have had another, simpler way of accessing my money. And this could have been a very different story.
So I say, the goddess saved my assets that day.