It was getting dark when I pulled into the lot of the Meijer store in Traverse City in late March. I parked well away from the building so no one would notice what I would be doing when I left the store: proving to a U.S. Treasury agent that I wasn’t a criminal. 

I’d been on the phone with the department for seven hours. After stops at two banks, a convenience store, and four big box outlets, I was carrying three $500 gift cards and $17,500 in cash. One more set of gift cards from Meijer could finish the job.

The walk across the parking lot was long. I pulled my coat tighter. 

Every time I tell someone what I did, I realize—with surprise—how stupid I was. I have degrees from Amherst and Harvard; I was a teacher in Ann Arbor for more than three decades. And yet that day, a disembodied voice on the phone had me driving frantically from town to town, with a stomach full of fear and envelopes of cash on the seat beside me.

It started that morning with a call from a 734 area code. Before my wife Kim and I moved up north in 2016, we’d lived in and around Ann Arbor for fifty years, so I picked it up. 

A man with an authoritative voice asked if I’d purchased an iPhone on my Amazon account. I said I hadn’t. 

He said his name was Sebastian Nye, and that my Social Security number had been “red flagged” by the Treasury Department. It had been used to open seven bank accounts in different states, and these accounts were involved in money laundering. My stress level immediately spiked. 

Sebastian told me that I was the prime suspect in the crime, and the call was being recorded as evidence. He warned me that all accounts associated with my Social Security number would be frozen or confiscated—my bank accounts, my pension, and my Social Security checks.

 The only remedy was to prove my identity at the banks that held my accounts. He could talk me through that, but I couldn’t hang up the phone or tell anyone what I was doing. If I were innocent, a leak could tip off the true criminals. 

I said I would leave immediately. I told Kim only that I was going to our banks, and that we were in serious trouble. She knows me as a reasonable guy, usually not prone to panic, and accepted that I couldn’t explain more.

In the parking lot of the first bank, Sebastian told me to withdraw a specific amount of money. His team would check the withdrawal amount to confirm that I had access to the account. He added that I should come up with a good story about why I wanted the money and be calm and professional. 

I don’t remember which tale I told at that bank—whether I was buying cars for my kids or getting college graduation gifts for grandkids—whatever story I could articulate at the time. 

It worked. With money in hand, I drove fifteen miles to the next bank, where I repeated the process. I left with withdrawal envelopes stuffed with about $19,000 in hundred-dollar bills. 

My next instructions were to visit a number of stores and purchase $500 gift cards—Walmart, Target, and Lowe’s, among others. I was to purchase four or more from each store, through the self-checkout if possible to avoid questions about my purposes. The phone had to stay on but in my pocket. 

The bank stops left me feeling I was gaining ground, making solid headway towards reclaiming my identity. Yet my nerves still ran high. At one point I noticed a text notification. In attempting to deal with it, I inadvertently lost my connection with Sebastian. 

I pulled over into a gas station to try to call him back, but the call did not go through. That upped my panic level—I was shouting at my phone, worried that I had blown my only chance to clear my name. He called me back after a few minutes, mildly admonished me, and accepted my apology. 

But it wasn’t easy getting as many cards as I needed. In four stops, I managed to buy only three. Each time, when I returned to the car, Sebastian asked me to verify the purchase by reading him the numbers on the cards. 

My panic had not eased at all, and, when I was unable to get one of the cards out of its plastic sleeve, my stress level spiked again. My hands shook as I fetched my jackknife out of the glove compartment to open the card and read out the numbers.

Frustrated at my inability to purchase more cards, Sebastian directed me to a convenience store with a RockItCoin machine. It was a difficult process, and when I struggled, he turned me over to another “agent,” who said he was with the accounts department in Washington, D.C. He worked hard to instruct me on how to put money into a Bitcoin account. 

Even after I’d mastered that skill, however, the machine would not allow me to transfer money to the Treasury’s account. Unable to figure out how to withdraw it, I left with $200 sitting in a Bitcoin account.

The man from the accounts office wanted me to try a CVS drug store. I knew Meijer was on the way and suggested it instead. I felt I had screwed up by mishandling the Bitcoin and getting only three gift cards, and wanted to make it right. 

He was delighted with my suggestion. As it turned out, it was one of the few smart things I did. 

It was about 6:30 p.m. when I walked into the store, invisibly connected to the “accounts agent” through the phone in my pocket. 

I made a straight line for the customer service desk. I’m seventy-eight years old, and my stress and exhaustion must have been showing. Before I said a word, the tall young man behind the counter looked at me knowingly.

He told me that I wanted to buy gift cards with $500 on each card, and was supposed to give him a good reason why I wanted it. And I was on the phone with the person giving me instructions. 

“It’s a scam,” he told me. “I’m 100 percent sure it’s a scam. I see one or two of these a day.” 

His ID said his name was John. He came out from behind the counter to put a sympathetic hand on my shoulder.

“These guys are good at it,” he said. 

 I checked the phone in my pocket. The Treasury Department had hung up.

I immediately called Kim, told her I’d been scammed, and I’d be home in an hour. Relieved and confused, she asked that we not talk on the phone about what had happened, to tell her when I got back. She was eager for my safe return.

My feelings at that moment were overwhelming. Yes, I felt stupid. But at the same time, I felt relief. The Treasury Department was not going to confiscate all my money and send me to jail.

I was out $1,700, which stung, but John told me that many had been taken for a lot more. The reason I had trouble buying multiple gift cards is that some companies, aware that they’re misused by scammers, have algorithms that identify and block suspicious transactions: an April article on described how Walmart identified and froze $4 million worth of cards obtained that way.

A federal court seized the money to return it to the mostly elderly victims. Still, the setback barely dented the $148 million in gift-card losses reported to the Federal Trade Commission in the first nine months of 2021. And if one clerk in one store in northern Michigan saw one or two victims a day, the true total was surely higher. I suspect many victims are too embarrassed to admit they were fooled—or despaired of getting any justice if they did. Later, when I filed my own report with the Antrim County Sheriff, the deputy told me the scam was probably from Nigeria and thus impossible for their department to go after. 

In hindsight, I realize that I was so intent on following instructions that I was unable to step back and realize what was happening.

By planting fear in me as his first step, Sebastian had triggered that specific yet limited focus. Convinced this had to get resolved, I was willing do whatever it took, the sooner the better. Almost grateful that, rather than sitting at home worrying about it, I could spring into action, I was in both flight and fight mode.

And John was right: these guys were good. They had done their homework and had reasonable answers to all my questions. When I asked why the initial iPhone purchase did not show up on my Amazon account, they said encryption software hid it. How could I disagree with that? 

Despite his commanding tone, Sebastian was also very supportive. He was “on my side,” helping me resolve this terrible problem—if only I would work with him. With visions of my finances being locked for months. I was eager to do my part to fix it, fast. 

At one point I even asked how I could be sure they were not scamming me; Sebastian got upset, saying I might jeopardize a Treasury Department operation. When I asked about my red-flagged Social Security card number, I was told how to get a new card and number after the operation. That effectively redirected me.

They also provided reassurances, increasing my trust. Each time Sebastian told me where to go to steal my money, he cautioned me to drive safely, keeping the line open but not talking while I was driving. Late in the day, when I complained about fatigue, he told me to get a bite to eat and something to drink—before we resumed stealing my money.

It seems obvious now why I was instructed not to tell anyone about what I was being asked to do. Anyone with a functioning brain—and I include myself as I recount this tale—would have known it was a scam. But I was terrified and stressed, alone, with no one to help me but the voices on my phone. 

So, let’s get past the “stupid” label, or even, the more favorable spin, the “trusting” one. When they started by stoking my fear—the loss of all my money—they fanned my existing fear of online identity theft. Less than a month earlier, my Visa card number had been hacked, and I had to cancel it and get a new one.

If a credit card number could be stolen, why not a Social Security number? That fear made me vulnerable to the hook; every step I took in following instructions planted the hook deeper. 

The drive home from Meijer took about an hour. I was delighted to see Kim and rejoin real life. She put out a plate full of hors d’oeuvres along with much of our liquor collection. 

I spoke with Kim’s son and his wife on the phone, and they encouraged me to file a report with the sheriff and to apply for refunds from Walmart and Target. I did that the next morning, a process that involved long waits on hold, a few dropped calls, struggles with breakups and inaudible phrases, and requests to speak with supervisors. 

I worked with RockItCoin to get my $200 in Bitcoin returned to me. They said they could transfer the money to my bank account, but I, newly cautious, declined. They mailed me a check instead.

I’m not getting a refund from Walmart or Target. Why should I? I am now more or less at peace with my loss, seeing it as a tax on stupidity, or perhaps as a form of tuition for my education. And if any money does get refunded, I’ll see it as an undeserved gift.

I wondered if such scams were concentrated in northern Michigan, but a quick check confirmed that they’re rampant. The Ann Arbor Police Department has a web page  that describes four “Current Scams”: “Outstanding Warrants Scam,” “Turner Wellness Center Imposter,” “iTunes Gift Card Scam,” and “ ‘Hostage’ Phone Scam.”

“Money Laundering” wasn’t mentioned, but these are pretty close. The AAPD page also suggests, “To get immediate updates of current scams on a national level, sign up for email alerts with the Federal Trade Commission.” The agency’s dedicated website——explains dozens of tricks that scammers use to scare us and steal our money.

I’d like to say that I’ve learned my lesson, but I’m not sure. While I’m more cautious, I’m worried what might be next. When I returned stacks of $100 bills to my banks and told the managers that they might have done a better job of protecting people like me, one of them said that my phone number might have been sold, and that I’m now on a sucker list. 

And my personality might be part of the equation. I overheard Kim taking a call from someone who said there was a problem with a Visa payment, could she straighten it out? She immediately hung up. I’m not sure I would have—it’s in my nature to fix problems and keep talking. 

Yes, I’m more careful now, but I know that I’m vulnerable. We all are.