Scams: Preying on Vulnerability and Violating Trust

I fell for a scam last week.  My computer froze, a pop up alarm appeared and said needed to call Microsoft immediately to protect all that was stored on my desktop, lest foreign hackers steal my data, documents and identity.  The Microsoft number was prominently displayed, inside its official logo.  I dialed, and got the main office in Redmond, Washington.  I let the helpful Microsoft Agent rid the pop up and threat, but a scan which I allowed him to perform indicated that my computer was due to be infected with a virus coming from Russia.  He cleaned it up, and reported the activity to my bank, whose fraud department called me — on the bank telephone line, five minutes after my Microsoft call ended.  The Fraud department outlined what I needed to do to prevent an illegal withdrawal from my accounts.  I was a but dubious about this, but since he knew exactly the amounts I had in my accounts, and what my latest transitions were, I began to follow his onerous instructions.  At the same time I had a friend call the bank fraud department on another phone, and the true bank told me they would never ask me to do what the alleged fraud department was suggesting.

An hour into this drama, I realized that I had been duped by some very clever people, who had gone to great lengths to convince people like me that they were employees of Microsoft and my bank.   The good news in this sordid affair is that no funds were withdrawn, but since the scammers now had data from both my computer and bank accounts, the legitimate fraud department froze my accounts and directed me to set up a new one, which I did the next day.  I was also required to take my computer in to have it cleaned and scanned.

It has been a mind-numbing hassle to bring my computer to Staples, go to the bank to open a new account number, get new checks and debit card, notify direct depositors and the many vendors who withdraw from my account on a monthly basis to cover various bills.  I will get all of that done.  But I am having a harder time getting over the wave of feelings that continue to constrict my stomach and pound my head.  I had some suspicions during my first two calls that I might have been the victim of a scam, but I pushed them away because I didn’t want to think I could be that stupid to proceed as far as I did.  When the con job became apparent to me, I felt incredibly stupid, a feeling that was soon taken over by shame.  I was ashamed of my naivete. I felt like a small boy — and all I wanted to do was hide from myself and everything else. 

Several times during a sleepless night a new feeling  emerged:   I had been violated. Violated by people who represented a desire (falsely it turns out) to help me.  As I began to roil with the turmoil of the violation, I began to think of so many people who have been violated by people who were out to take advantage — with far more disastrous consequences.

I began this saga with a combination of vulnerability and trust.  I am perhaps at my most vulnerable whenever I am dealing with technology.  So when an alarm pops up on my computer (which I barely have a rudimentary facility in operating) I take it seriously.  And when a professional offers help, I trust both their desire and ability to not only fix my computer but bring me out of my vulnerability.

The scammers preyed on my vulnerability and trust. The tech guy at Staples, who told me he gets two calls a day like mine, thought that the scammers reap over $100,000 a week from their nefarious schemes.  I took some comfort in  the fact that I am among a legion of people who have been conned.  “Con” first appeared in the mid 19th century; it is a shortened version of confidence, which is what we victims have placed in our would-be helpers.

Most con artists engage in various financial scams for the purpose of stealing money.  But there are other scammers who traffic in the realm of the soul.  There have been several times during my forty-five years of ordained life when people have questioned my integrity because I promote a belief system that, from their perspective,  scams people of their dignity and reason.  One friend, an ardent non-believer, once said I was a professional hoodwinker.

I understood the accusations, and while they didn’t shame me or make me feel vulnerable, I reacted with a profound sadness.  And still do, because there are countless number of religious leaders who, underneath their presentations of pathways to faith, are issuing threats:  “if you don’t believe in this way, you are going to hell.”   Choose this path, because the consequences are disastrous if you don’t.  This sort of theology, which seems to be getting momentum in this country and other parts of the world, preys on people’s vulnerability, which is at an incredibly high level these days, and redefines trust as a surrendering of personal agency.  Embedded in this approach is a subliminal message:  don’t worry about thinking or reflecting; we will do that for you.

I resent that punishing approach, perhaps even more strongly that non-believers do, because I invariably get painted with the same hurtful (and sometimes hateful) brush.  What I would call transactional theology tarnishes and threatens the gospel, which is a conflation of the Old English  “good story,” and which — for me, is marked by openness, grace, reconciliation and acceptance.

I can’t count the number of times I have been confused in my faith journey.  But never conned.  That said, sometimes the confusion and anxiety has been so intense that I looked for a quick and easy way out.   That I may have settled for a con.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian theologian and martyr (he was hanged for his attempt to overthrow Hitler) called that desire “cheap grace.”

Grace isn’t cheap.  It is priceless.  Grace honors our vulnerability, and invites a trust that deepens as we work through our confusion and all the challenges that life throws at us.

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