DEA warns of a new, intricate phone scam targeting Seattle-Tacoma area

The Drug Enforcement Agency in Seattle says there's a big spike in scams happening with people posing as DEA agents.

“There is a spike in our area in the last few days, for sure. My voicemail is full. It is a huge spike,” said DEA Public Affairs Special Agent Jodie Underwood. “The scammers are smart,” she said.

A Tacoma woman -- who considers herself tech-savvy – fell for it. And she is sharing her story so you don't fall for it too.

Amber Thiel’s case said the person on the phone wasn't threatening her with arrest or asking for bail money -- but instead, said the government was trying to protect her. The caller ended up scamming her out of thousands of dollars.

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“I consider myself an intelligent person, and I was totally hook, line and sinker,” Thiel said.

She lives in Browns Point with her toddler girl and owns an online health and wellness business. She said this phone scam hit all the right buttons

“It was manipulation. Every pain point in my life, my business, the single mom, the religion,” she said.

It started with a phone call and several voicemails saying there was fraudulent activity related to her Social Security number.

“And just because of where I am in life, I thought, 'Well maybe I missed something in the mail,'” Thiel said.

She called back and ended up speaking with someone claiming to be from the DEA. The agent gave her name and badge number, and said someone had stolen her identity - and was using it to traffic drugs in Texas.

“For the next hour and a half I was interrogated, not in a forceful way. Just, ‘Who do you know in Texas? Are there any of your relatives you’re suspicious of, did you give anyone your Social Security number? Are you close with any of your family members? Have you been to Texas?’” Thiel said.

She was transferred to another scammer posing as an agent who said they needed to “block her Social Security number” to stop the criminal activity tied to her identity, which would also lock up her finances.

“Then the panic started. Because I need to have those funds, because that’s how am I going to pay my rent, my life. ‘Ma’am I understand that. That’s what my job is. We need to secure your money,’” Thiel remembered. “This gentleman proceeded to say he’s dedicated his life to helping Americans like me not get scammed by this type of situation. He said this has happened all the time and I’m here to protect you,” Thiel said.

She said the scammers kept her on the phone for five hours.

“Looking back now - a million red flags. A million red flags. Should’ve hung up then, should’ve hung up then. But when you’re locked into the fear and confusion together, everything looks blurry,” she said.

Thiel said the scammers convinced her to go to her bank and withdraw her accounts so she could access her funds.

But when they told her to buy Google Play gift cards – she said she recognized the warning sign in the moment.

“I go - I’m not buying gift cards. I immediately was like, I’m not doing that. I’ve heard of this.' ‘Ma’am I understand that.’ He said this is being duplicated by scammers. Like, ‘The reason people are doing that is because of this exact process I’m taking you through - you have my badge number,’” Thiel said.

“Made me feel like they cared about me almost. Like they were trying to protect me,” she said.

The scammer convinced her to get the cards and give him the numbers  by explaining a how the cards would be exchanged for a government digital voucher.

“’They’re going to give you a government-certified check, and that’s going to be clean money. That’s going to be safe money, you can put it all back in your account and then it’s all going to be over. You are so close you’re almost there,’” she remembered the man saying.

But at the end of the call, she said his tone of voice changed.

“At that point I knew it was  a scam,” she said.

“Amber, how much money did you lose?” KIRO7’s Deedee Sun asked.

“A lot. Everything I had. Business and personal checking,” Thiel said.

At first, she didn’t want to share her story.

“There’s a lot of shame, humiliation, and embarrassment. Knowing that people were going to say are you kidding me? How could you fall for that,” she said.

But decided she needed to let you know  just how far scammers will go.

“If I can put love out there and forgiveness, and education., that’s the only way we’re going to overcome this incredibly evil, awful, awful thing that happened to me and hopefully isn’t going to happen to anybody else,” she said.

The DEA says if it ever needs to contact you  it will be by mail on letterhead, or an agent will come to your house.

The Tacoma Police Department said if scammers had stolen Amber's identity, they have fraud detectives who would investigate. But say in cases where you give up the money - there's not much they can do.

Law enforcement agencies also remind you that government agencies never operate with gift cards.

The DEA is also warning people nationally of an uptick in scams. If you got a scam call, you're asked to fill out an online form here.

Thiel said that after she was scammed, she called the scam number back the next day.

“It was the first guy I talked to that was supposed to be from the DEA. And I said I just wanted to let you know I’m the single mom you stole everything from yesterday and I want to let you know that what you did isn’t going to take me down. I forgive you, and I hope that by me giving you forgiveness, you know there is nothing you’ve done that can’t be forgiven. And I prayed over him. And I said I hope this plants a seed in you to rise up, and turn against this industry and what you’re doing.

“And I said I will continue to pray for you and your family until I die. Hoping that you understand that there is an alternative out there than what you’re doing. I said I don’t hold it against you. I can’t imagine what your life is like to think that you need to do this to people. And I just hung up. He didn’t say anything but I got my piece in, and from there I’m moving on,” Thiel said.

Read Thiel's full account of what happened on her website here.