Photo: Rodney Coleman-Robinson, AP
DETROIT (AP) — They beat her when she was down.
At 57, Christina Ihlenfeldt is reeling with heartache, anger and regret — gut-wrenching regret. In just one week, she buried her husband, became unemployed and then got taken for $30,000 by online scammers pretending to be with Best Buy’s Geek Squad.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to her, she would later think. She was college educated and tech savvy. She had a legal background, worked with computers her entire work life and helped major corporations process patent payments.
But she was emotionally and mentally drained after her husband’s death, she said, and the slick con artists lay in waiting.
“They knew I was a widow,” the Clinton Township woman told the D etroit Free Press. “And they were very prepared. … I keep thinking, ‘How could I have let this happen? ’ ”
And then the memories come flooding back:
The night she found her husband on the bathroom floor. The heart attack. The nurses telling her his body was shutting down. The peaceful look on his face when he took his final breath at home.
“I was vulnerable, and they knew it,” said Ihlenfeldt, struggling to regain her composure. “I would never have done this if I was in my right mind.”
After two weeks of agonizing — she called the FBI, her children, her bank, a bank in Thailand and the wire-transfer company that released her funds to faraway scammers — Ihlenfeldt decided to speak up about what happened to spare others her fate.
“I’m beating myself up over and over and over again, but I was vulnerable,” she said. “And despite the embarrassment, I don’t want others to fall prey to this.”
How a widow got scammed
It was about 10:30 a.m. Aug. 19 and Ihlenfeldt was sitting outside on one of her husband’s old aluminum lawn chairs, drinking coffee and trying to enjoy the morning sun.
“I was so depressed,” she recalled, noting her hellish week.
Six days earlier, she had buried the love of her life, Bob Ihlenfeldt, 69, who passed away after battling a foot infection followed by a heart attack that he couldn’t fight back from.
Then four days after the funeral, she got a call from work: They were eliminating her position, ending her nearly six-year career as an administrative assistant at a financial services philanthropic firm.
Two days later, the scammers zeroed in on her.
As she sipped on her coffee in the lawn chair, an AOL email alert went off on her cellphone. It was from her husband’s email account, which she had access to.
The email said it was from Geek Squad Best Buy, stating that it had auto-charged his account $300 for two additional years of protection.
It looked plausible, she recalled, so she set out to cancel the two-year protection plan, noting it wasn’t needed anymore, and she didn’t want a $300 charge coming out of her husband’s account.
So she dialed one of the phone numbers listed in the email.
“I said, ’I’m calling because of this email. I’d like to request a refund. We don’t need protection.”
” ‘Oh yes Ma ‘am. We can help you with that,’ ” she recalled the male voice on the other line telling her.
Then came what she would later realize was the first red flag: The man said he would send her a form to fill out to start the refund.
She was to put her name on it, and the amount she was owed: $300.
She emailed the form and he said, “We’re done.”
But then came a pause. He said something didn’t go through, that perhaps maybe she didn’t fill out the form correctly, and that there was another way. He would fill out the form for her on her computer.
Before entering her computer, he asked, “By the way, how is your computer running?”
It had been running slowly, she recalled. And she thought he was with the real Best Buy Geek Squad, so when he asked to get onto her desktop remotely, she said, “like a fool, I let him.”
While she was watching, the stranger on the other end of her telephone took control of her computer and filled out the supposed “refund” form. He typed her name, and then the “30000.” The decimal point never showed up. He intentionally left out the decimal point, she would later realize, which made $300 look like $30,000 in the eyes of the computer.
“At first he said, ‘Oh my God! we deposited $30,000 instead of $300 into your bank. Check your bank. I’ll be in trouble,’ ” she recalled him telling her.
Panicked and worried, she checked her bank account. The $30,000 was there, with a plus mark next to it.
“All I could think of was for him getting his money back,” she said. “Then I’m trying to figure out how to get it back to him before someone noticed, so what did I do?”
She did what the stranger asked: She wired $30,000 back to a Mellon Bank in New York.
“I went to the physical bank and authorized a wire transfer,” she said, now kicking herself for not telling the bank what was happening. “I was so believing that he was going to get into trouble.”
It wasn’t until after she left the bank that afternoon that she discovered what really happened. After gaining access to her computer, the man had gone into her husband’s bank account, withdrew $30,000 from it and transferred the funds into her bank account, she said.
This was the $30,000 that she saw in her bank that day. It was the money she wired back to them from the bank.
It was her husband’s money, money that was supposed to help her get on with her life, but was last traced to a bank in Thailand.
“People reading this may say, ‘God what an idiot.’ It’s so easy to say that. But the son-of-a-bitch sent me emails that looked like a Chase bank account. I’ve got screen shots showing there was a deficit in their account. They were very prepared,” she said, still torn up about not letting her bank know what was going on.
The whole time, she said, she really thought he was going to lose his job, and she was trying to help him.
‘The money was gone’
After discovering the money missing from her husband’s bank account, Ihlenfeldt called back the number listed in the original Geek Squad email.
“What is going on? Someone took money from my husband’s account?!” she recalled screaming.
He said, ” ‘Ma ‘am, I can explain. The company found out about my error and they held the funds.’ ”
None of that made sense to her, so again, she asked, “How did you get into my husband’s account?? ”
“He said, ‘No, no no Ma’ am. It’s from the account you gave us.? ”
The stranger continued with the ruse, telling her, “Ma ‘am, we’re from Geek Squad. Our job is to help you get your money back,’ ” she recalled.
By the time she got home and contacted the wire company, OFX, it was too late. The money had already been transferred. She tried to initiate a recall to get the money sent back, but said that the wire company told her that the receiving bank has to notify the recipient — in this case, the scammers — about a recall request. And if the recipient refuses to send it back, then the money stays put.
“I blew up. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?! Do you think they’re going to authorize a recall? … It’s a scam.’ ”
She kept trying to call back the stranger she had spoken to, but by 5 p.m. that night, they stopped answering her emails and phone calls.
“I was heartsick,” she said. “The money was gone.”
A love to cherish
For Ihlenfeldt, her faith, three grown children and five grandchildren are what keep her going now. She still believes that the world is filled with mostly good people, and she believes that love endures all.
Bob taught her that and showed her that.
He was her sweetheart, the love of her life.
He was 12 years her senior, and came into her life at a time when she thought love, romance and courtship were long over for her.
The two met in 2010. At the time, she was a single mom with three children and had been divorced for 14 years. The two started dating and worked together in the intellectual property field, processing patent payments for large corporations. She had a computer and legal background while Bob was a computer operator and manager.
“Bob was a total surprise,” she said, noting she was convinced that she would “never” marry again. “I have a music degree. He was a lover of music and a walking history book of Detroit music. I just loved hearing his stories and people writing about it on his obituary page.”
For six years, Christina and Bob Ihlenfeldt loved and cherished one another, celebrated life together and overcame some hardships.
In 2016, Bob had a stroke but came through OK. In 2018, he had a second stroke that hit harder: He couldn’t drive or ride his motorcycle anymore.
Then this summer brought more health problems. Bob, who was a diabetic, was hospitalized with a foot infection on July 25. Within a week, he would suffer a heart attack.
He had fallen down at home and his wife had found him on the bathroom floor. The ambulance came and transported him back to the hospital, where his health quickly deteriorated. His heart was operating at 15%. His body was shutting down.
Heartbroken, Ihlenfeldt brought him home and stayed at his side until he peacefully slipped away.
“He started fluttering his eyes. He looked upwards … the pain, the wrinkles were gone,” she said. “He looked like an angel. His face radiated. He was seeing heaven.”
‘You won’t see that money again’
In a statement to the Free Press, Best Buy warned consumers to be wary of such schemes.
“Unfortunately, what happened to Mrs. Ihlenfeldt is a terrible scam. Best Buy does not request access to a personal device without a customer first contacting us to request service. If someone thinks they’re being involved in a similar scam, we encourage them to contact the local authorities immediately, as well as report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint at ic3.gov.”
Ihlenfeldt did file a complaint with the FBI, and received a call back the following morning. At about 7:30 a.m., an FBI agent at the Detroit office called her and took her information, she said.
“I’m hoping that there’s some way to track (them) down,” she said, noting the FBI agent gave her little hope. “He just said, ‘Sometimes when we can catch these guys, we get some of the money back, but I would just prepare yourself that you won’t see that money again.’ ”
It was no revelation.
“I knew that. That’s why I was so sick to my stomach. … My heart was going into my stomach,” she recalled, noting she was too afraid and embarrassed to tell her family.
Still, she reached out to her son, who, she said, told her not to worry and that she had done the right thing by contacting the FBI.
One of her cousins, Alicia Bova, was heartbroken, shocked and angry when she heard what happened, and started a Go Fund Me page to help raise money for Ihlenfeldt.
“I want to help my cousin in any way, to ease the sting of losing her savings at a time she needs them the most,” said Bova, who described Ihlenfeldt as a giving and compassionate person who has helped many.
“She is always there to help people in need and last year, she came through for me,” Bova said, hoping others will now come to the aid of her cousin. “She just lost her husband, and her job is being eliminated. No one plans for a fraud victim day. I’m hoping that people can help her.”
A cursory review of the Internet and Best Buy forums show that Ihlenfeldt is not alone.
In recent years, multiple Geek Squad scams have been cited by people across the country, typically involving fraudsters emailing or leaving phone messages that Geek Squad was renewing an account or offering refunds for computer work, and needed people to call back.
No one reported actually losing money, however.
Ihlenfeldt also found a YouTube video from a victim who was targeted in almost the exact same way as her, but didn’t lose tens of thousands of dollars.
Ihlenfeldt, meanwhile, desperately tried to get her money back. She went back to her bank, but there was nothing they could do for her, she said, noting the bank was kind and sympathetic and said “they had seen it before.”
She also tried the money wire company again, only to learn that the $30,000 transfer had been completed, that a recall was requested, but that the recipient refused.
She also contacted Bangkok Bank in Thailand, where the money was last tracked. A bank representative there told her to email information explaining what happened, which she did. To date, she has heard nothing from the bank.
“It was so convincing,” she recalled. “They kept saying, ‘This is our job to get your money back. We know you’re a widow. And you need this money.’ Ugh, They’re awful. They’re horrible people.”