He held me hostage with no gun but with his words:The phone scam gaslighting therapists

San Francisco Chronicle/September 27, 2021

By Carolyn Said

It started with a voice mail on Jaime Bardacke’s cell phone that sounded work-related. It came on Father’s Day, and the licensed clinical social worker was driving back to her San Francisco apartment after visiting family, eager to eat dinner and watch the NBA playoffs.

That message kicked off a harrowing 6½-hour odyssey during which she was fleeced of thousands of dollars as she drove around San Francisco and the Peninsula on the phone with a swindler — who was in her head both literally through her earbuds and metaphorically through manipulation tactics.

It was like being kidnapped.

“He held me hostage with no gun but with his words,” Bardacke said. “I never expected a call on a Sunday night to be from a sociopath.”

Phone scams are incredibly common.

A stunning 59.4 million Americans lost $29.8 billion to them in the 12 months that ended in March, according to a report from Truecaller, based on a survey by the Harris Poll. That was a huge jump from pre-pandemic numbers. In 2019, 43 million Americans lost $10.5 billion to phone scams, according to the same poll for that year. Experts theorize that the lockdown isolation and virus anxiety made people more vulnerable to smooth-talking strangers. And despite the perception that seniors are more likely to be victimized, it was actually people ages 18 to 44 who fell prey most often.

While some are robocalls that scream fake — purportedly from the IRS or about an expired car warranty — others are perpetrated by criminals who use sophisticated mind-control tactics, experts say.

“Grifters are amateur psychologists,” said Alan Castel, a UCLA psychology professor who studied scams for his book “Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging.”

“They understand that people respond to social influences, especially to authority,” Castel said. “They know people don’t use all their cognitive resources when they’re stressed. They know that if you can rush people, scare people, they’ll become hyper-focused on trying to solve a problem. Fraudsters create a powerful situation that induces compliance.”

The man’s message that Sunday said he was calling from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office about a legal matter. That wasn’t surprising. Bardacke, 45, deals with legal issues involving her clients.

When Bardacke returned home and called back, the man identified himself as Lt. Timothy Reid and asked Bardacke why she had failed to testify at a trial after having signed a subpoena saying she would appear. Now there was an order to arrest her for contempt of court, he told her.

“I was immediately concerned because I have been subpoenaed as an expert witness as part of my work,” she said. “I knew this could affect the status of my license. My whole livelihood depends on that.”

Bardacke told the man she’d never received a subpoena. He said she needed to come to the sheriff’s office in Redwood City to sign her name to prove that her signature had been forged. Once she’d done so, she could be on her way, he said.

Bardacke Googled the caller’s name and the Redwood City address he gave her. There was an officer with that name, and the address was for the Sheriff’s Office.

The caller told Bardacke it was a federal case and a judge had issued a gag order so he couldn’t say more about it. He had authority to bring her in and clear up the matter, but she would need to post a bail with the federal government that would be reimbursed once they proved her signature was forged.

As they talked, she could hear noises in the background that sounded as if he were at a police station — people talking, phones ringing.

“I was taken aback, but I was like, ‘OK,’” she said. “He said it was $6,000 bail, and I said I didn’t have that amount here. He said, ‘That’s OK, I can tell you how to get it and you’ll be reimbursed as soon as you come into the station and verify.’”

Some internal alarm bells went off. Bardacke said she wanted to call a friend who’s a lawyer.

The caller was firm.

“I’m sorry but once you’re on the phone with me, you’re not allowed to get off because you’re considered a flight risk,” she recalls him saying. “This phone call is being monitored and you’re not allowed to send a text message or make any calls about this case because it’s in violation of the gag order.”

She shouldn’t think of contacting the police either, he said.

“He said if I had any interaction with a police officer, I would be taken into custody and held at least 72 hours before the warrant could be lifted,” she said. “I couldn’t go to the police, call the police, set foot on police property until I posted this bond; otherwise I would be taken into custody.”

Bardacke was scared, worrying how she would get the money, wondering about a request that seemed outrageous — but also remembering all the clients she’d known who were forced to spend time behind bars because they couldn’t post bail.

“If you want to spend 72 hours in jail, that’s your choice,” the man kept saying. “I can stop helping you.”

Bardacke’s ordeal was not unique. Scores of therapists in California and throughout the country have fallen prey to similar phone calls, according to messages on professional list servers, news articles and warnings from industry associations.

The script varies, but there are some constants. The victims are women, many of whom list their work cell phone numbers on a website for people seeking therapists. (Some were actually notified by the site that someone had requested their contact information the same day the calls came.) The perpetrator is a man with a confident tone of authority. He tells them they are in legal trouble, but he can help them avoid jail time if they pay a fine or bail. He coaches them to buy gift cards.

The Chronicle interviewed four other Bay Area therapists who recounted very similar calls to the one that targeted Bardacke.

“I have been date-raped in my life, and this felt just as violating as that did,” said one of the women who was granted anonymity in accordance with The Chronicle’s policy on anonymous sources. “It was emotionally and psychologically violating and traumatic.”

Bardacke told the caller she wasn’t dressed to go out and needed to change clothes. “That’s OK; you can put me on video,” he said. She recoiled at the crude joke, and he apologized.

She dressed and got in her car, still on the phone. As instructed, she took two forms of ID and a manila envelope.

She hadn’t had time to eat dinner. “I left my house hungry and scared, feeling kind of frantic,” she said.

The caller instructed her to go a nearby ATM. Her daily withdrawal limit was $800. He told her to increase the limit via the bank’s app, but she couldn’t do it — “I was getting more and more flustered; it was hard to figure out” — so he told her to call the bank while he stayed on the line, listening in. She upped the limit to $1,500 and withdrew that amount.

The caller told Bardacke to go to a nearby Safeway to buy prepaid Visa cards with the money.

He said she then needed to send the cards via designated mailboxes that had arrangements with the Department of Treasury to serve as direct drop boxes. She wouldn’t need to put postage on the envelope; just his name and badge number would suffice, he said.

He directed her where to find one of the mailboxes. She got more and more confused as she drove, seemingly in circles. Finally she found it. It was just a regular blue U.S. Postal Service mailbox, but he insisted it was special.

Right before she put a card in the mailbox, he had her read him the card number, scratch off the covering on the PINs and read those aloud too.

The entire time, he kept talking. He would scare her with the prospect of jail time, then be friendly by updating her on the score of the playoff game, then make her feel guilty for doubting him, then be nice, then scare her again.

“He had a whole rhythm of working me up into a state where I couldn’t think straight,” she said.

Seesawing between negative and positive emotions such as fear and friendliness is a classic gaslighting technique, said Stacey Wood, a professor of psychology at Scripps College, who researches scams. Swindlers invoke authority to give themselves credibility, she said.

Fear or the promise of a huge reward “place you into a less deliberative mind-set because your emotions are invoked,” Wood said.

Another tactic: “Saying here’s a problem and here’s a solution,” she said. “We all want a quick fix when we’re in a bind.”

Fraudsters use grooming behavior, starting their victims on small things and then escalating. In this case, getting a victim into her car was step one. Then came getting money from the ATM, buying gift cards and reading aloud the numbers.

Bardacke now can look back and analyze what happened, realizing that the situation triggered her to “fight, freeze and fawn” — well-known responses to trauma (along with flight, which she felt powerless to do).

Initially she tried to be friendly and engaging with the caller. As he frightened her, she fought back with her words, saying things like, “I can’t do this. This isn’t right. It’s disgusting that this justice system works this way. This is a terrible thing you’re asking me to do. Why should I believe you? This is cruel.”

At other times she would freeze, breaking down and feeling unable to continue. He would coach her to take deep breaths and say they’d get through this together.

“I went through all those cycles, and then he would scare me again as soon as I started to think a little more clearly,” Bardacke said. “Fear interrupts your executive functioning.”

Almost two hours after she received the voice mail, the man was telling Bardacke to go to other stores for more prepaid cards. Once she had used up her cash, she should use her credit cards to buy the prepaid Visa cards, he said. She visited a 7-Eleven, a Target, a CVS, another Safeway. At each, the routine was the same: Buy the cards, drive around seeking the special mailboxes, then read him the numbers.

By then she was crying and distraught.

At Rite-Aid, the clerk looked her in the eyes and slipped her a preprinted flyer saying, “Are you the victim of a scam?” It listed common scams, including one where someone says you have to post a bail bond.

“That was the closest I came to ending it,” she said. “Instead I walked away from the counter and told the guy on the phone.”

He said he could prove he was legitimate by calling her back from his desk phone. He told her to Google the Sheriff’s Office number. Sure enough, her phone rang a minute later, seemingly from that number. Bardacke didn’t know that con artists can use a technique called spoofing to falsify caller ID information.

He said, “Jaime, how could I call you from this number if it were a scam?” she recalled. “He made me feel guilty for doubting him.”

Prepaid cards are popular with scammers because they are easy to buy and have few consumer protections, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Out of 556,792 fraud reports to the FTC for “imposter scams” — a criminal who pretends to be someone else — made from January to June, the top payment method was gift cards or reloading cards. The top contact method was a phone call.

About 14% of those half-million people reported losing money, totaling some $974.6 million in all, with a median loss of $1,000.

Imposter scams are surging, the agency says. In the second quarter of this year, almost a quarter of a million were reported, more than double the 91,000 at the same time last year.

It was now after 11 p.m. Bardacke was exhausted. She’d bought $6,000 worth of prepaid cards, read the numbers and put them in the mail. Now she just had to go to the Sheriff’s Office in Redwood City, and it would all be over.

But the man wasn’t done with her.

“He said, ‘Before you get here, I want to warn you, you’ll be subject to a strip search and cavity search when you arrive,’” Bardacke said. “‘And we don’t have a female officer here so I’ll be doing it.’”

He described it to her in graphic detail.

“I panicked,” she said. “I said, ‘No, no, no, this can’t be true.’”

The man again said he would help her. Instead of an in-person search, she could disrobe in a bathroom at a nearby drugstore and video herself doing the search. He gave her a .gov email address where she could send it.

She drove to a CVS. Sobbing, she begged the manager to let her in the closed bathroom, saying it was an emergency.

She had to hang up the phone to take a video. Her hands were shaking. She couldn’t work her phone. She realized she couldn’t do this to herself. She decided she’d just let him search her.

She drove to the address he’d given her in Redwood City.

The windows were dark. It was clearly a daytime office.

She called him and there was no answer.

“And that’s when I knew,” she said.

For Bridget Early, 45, the call came through the main office of the San Francisco middle school where she is a social worker. Her principal called her to say she had an urgent call from a sergeant, and transferred the call to her in the library. “He said my date of birth and my Social Security number,” Early said. “He sounded really legitimate.”

He told her there was a warrant for her arrest for not going through the proper channels for jury duty. “I totally believed it, and was really freaked out,” Early said. “He kept saying, ‘Yes, ma’am, I know this is really scary; don’t worry, we’re going to figure it out.’”

He told her that she could handle it with a $500 fine to be paid at 850 Bryant, the San Francisco Hall of Justice. He said she could pay the money via a gift card from Walgreens.

She hung up and told her principal and some co-workers, who said it sounded like a scam. But she was so rattled and fearful of being arrested that she felt she had to comply.

Early got in her car and the man called on her cell phone to see if she was getting the money. She started driving.

But then she listened to her own protective instincts. She called a friend who works nights at a jail. “He said, ‘Stop your car, turn around — this is totally a scam,’” she said.

The “sergeant” called her over and over, probably seven times. He left messages saying, “Are you on your way? We’re waiting; you don’t want to be arrested.”

Her friend called co-workers at 850 Bryant. One of them went out front to pretend to be Early, calling out that she was Bridget and had the money. No one responded.

Barnacke’s first thought was relief — both that her ordeal was over, and that her inner voice, which all along had told her this was not OK, was trustworthy. “I just overrode that,” she said.

She called 911, went to the San Francisco police station and reported it. The officer filed two reports, for a financial crime and a sexual crime. The calls were from a burner phone, he told her. She would have no recourse with the banks or credit card companies because she herself had taken out the money.

She reached out to local colleagues in the next days, and about 15 said they had been victimized by a similar scam.

“It’s clearly targeting our profession,” she said.

It seems ironic that therapists, who understand psychology, would be particularly vulnerable, but there are some reasons.

One is that a threat to a therapist’s license is a powerful motivator because their livelihood depends on that.

Another is that many therapists are committed to trying to understand other people and see their humanity.

“There’s an empathy therapists have that I think can get easily exploited,” Bardacke said.

San Francisco police received 632 reports of fraudulent game or trick for obtaining money or property in 2020, and 322 this year as of Aug. 23.

Apprehending criminals who use prepaid phones and receive prepaid cards is rare.

“Tracking down and identifying suspects for crimes like this is the most difficult aspect of the investigation,” said SFPD spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca. While the department’s goal is to catch perpetrators, its other mission is to prevent people from becoming victims by educating the public.

“Any person can be susceptible to one of these scams,” said Castel, the UCLA professor. “It’s not just lonely older people. It’s often very intelligent, rational people who are looking to solve a problem. Victims aren’t necessarily gullible, ignorant or uneducated; often it is the exact opposite.”

Castel said he thinks support groups that offer victims a safe space to share their stories would be a great way to help them recover. People who are willing to speak up publicly are doing a service by helping spread awareness, he said.

That was Bardacke’s motivation in going public about her ordeal.

“If even a few people can be saved from this, it’s worth it,” she said. “The only way these people get away with this is because it’s not talked about because of the shame involved. It’s a crime where information is the only thing that will save you.”

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