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Coming forward to help others: Islander Heather Lee on how she lost everything

It’s called a con game for a reason.

Thieves establish a sense of confidence in potential victims, claiming they are looking out for their best interests, and truly care for the individuals they’re about to fleece.

That’s what happened to Heather Lee over a period of weeks this summer, when she lost her entire life savings in a scam. But she’s far from the only person to be victimized — a Harris poll report says 59.4 million Americans were subject to phone/internet scams last year. Detective/Sergeant Jack Thilberg said the Shelter Island Police Department are receiving information on phone/internet scams on a weekly basis.

She may be one of many who fall prey to criminals, but Ms. Lee is the rare person who has come forward to discuss what happened to her, Police Chief Jim Read said. He praised her for speaking out to help others avoid the pitfalls and snares that sophisticated criminals rely on to rob unsuspecting people.

At a meeting at Shelter Island Police headquarters, Ms. Lee, who is the Island’s school bus driver, met with Chief Read and Sgt. Thilberg to discuss what happened, how to prevent becoming the target of frauds, and provide an update on the criminal case proceeding against those who victimized her.

“If I can help one person,” Ms. Lee said, not to be taken in as she was, she believes she will be performing a public service to a community that has rallied to help her. A GoFundMe page, posted by Peggy DiSunno, is up and running for her, asking for donations. At the moment more than $30,000 has been raised. The address of the page is https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-heather-heal-from-a-huge-scam.

Also at the meeting at police headquarters was Shelter Island Lions Club Treasurer Frank Vecchio. The Lions, Mr. Vecchio said, are helping Ms. Lee. There will soon be a button on the Lions web page —shelterislandlions.org — to click on to donate money through PayPal. Checks can be sent to Shelter Island Lions Club, PO Box 760, Shelter Island, NY 11964 USA. Every dollar donated will go to help Ms. Lee.

Tricks of the criminal trade

The fraud perpetuated on Ms. Lee, who lives alone and rents an apartment on the Island, began in July, when one day, checking emails and looking at websites, a banner came across her screen that told her to contact Microsoft immediately, and gave a phone number. When she called the number, a man informed her that her bank account had been hacked, and thieves were going to withdraw $20,000 to be used by gamblers.

She was told not to inform anyone about the scheme, especially bank personnel who could be involved in the fraud. She was urged to withdraw a certain amount of cash from her account and send it via Federal Express to a California address. The purpose was to have the funds deposited elsewhere, and be “encrypted” against the hackers who had gained access to her account.

Believing that the caller was part of a team that would support her in protecting her savings, Ms. Lee withdrew the cash and mailed it.

Then began weeks “of going to every branch” of her bank in the area, she said, withdrawing more money at the direction of the scammers and sending the cash to addresses in California, Texas and Nevada. She sent and received thousands of texts from the thieves, Sgt. Thilberg said, showing a binder of 250 pages of copies of the texts — 30 to a page — that Ms. Lee sent and received.

The texts became personal, such as, “How are you today, Ms. Lee?” and urging her to send a new batch of funds “before you have your breakfast.” They would ask her how her choir practice had gone, but always adding a sense of urgency to complete tasks so the team could help her protect her savings.

It’s a common feature in fraud schemes, Chief Read said, of criminals providing a bogus feeling of security, even friendship, establishing trust, and gaining the confidence of the victim through personal touches and seemingly sincere communications. When one man replaced the first caller, saying his predecessor had been in a car accident, he elicited sympathy from Ms. Lee, which showed how skillful the con game was progressing, the police said.

It gets to the point, Sgt. Thilberg said, “where they make you lie to others,” as happened to Ms. Lee, who didn’t respond truthfully to bank tellers who asked why she was withdrawing large amounts of cash. Again, she was told that her bank might be part of a group that wanted to steal from her.

It wasn’t just cash, but Ms. Lee was asked to send gift cards, and the numbers of the gift cards to be used at businesses such as Walgreen’s, Nike and others. The use of gift cards is a particular “red flag,” Chief Read said, confirming you are in the middle of a criminal plot.

There was also the possibility of a person-to-person meeting, which fortunately, never happened.

In the end, her savings wiped out, Ms. Lee realized what had happened. An initial sense of embarrassment was overcome when she contacted the Police Department, and Sgt. Thilberg immediately began an investigation. Chief Read said embarrassment is the reason more frauds are not exposed. People lose money and are mortified, but they shouldn’t be, the chief said, because many are trusting, good people who are unfamiliar with how scams work.

The frauds rob people of amounts from a couple of thousand dollars, the chief said, to one Islander who lost $300,000.

Tracking down the thieves

The department is “deep into the investigation,” Chief Read said, and showing significant progress. He expects subpoenas to be issued soon by the Suffolk County District Attorney.

Sgt. Thilberg said there are videos under review of suspects cashing the gift cards Ms. Lee sent, and purchasing goods, including expensive electronic devices for resale. Identification is underway, but it’s difficult in the era of COVID with masked individuals.

“This is an organized structure,” Sgt. Thilberg added, “not just a couple of people.”

Although there’s an opportunity to bring the criminals to justice, “Heather’s not getting her money back,” Chief Read said.

He reiterated that if you feel you’re being victimized, contact the Police Department immediately — 631-749-0600 — and/or someone you trust. Don’t click on unfamiliar web addresses and don’t make phone calls to unfamiliar numbers urging you to call immediately.

Criminals pose as representatives of legitimate organizations such as PSEG, Det. Thilberg said. Scammers, posing as employees, will tell people to send money immediately or all power will be shut off. The IRS is used by scammers, who will claim a person owes back taxes and will be imprisoned if they don’t pay a certain amount immediately.

The hope is, Chief Read said, is that Islanders become aware of the thieves lurking in the shadows of the internet, “and we won’t be sitting in this room” with another person who has been robbed.

Ms. Lee said she’s “doing all right, I’m O.K.,” and was thankful to the Police Department and the community that has stepped forward to help her. “I can pay bills. I can go to the grocery store,” she said. “This has been a learning experience for me, and hopefully I can help get the word out.”