Karen Doughtie at home with the family pet, Butterbean. Reflecting on her recent misfortune, she is grateful that scammers didn’t get away with too much of her money, and hopes that others learn from her experience.

Karen Doughtie thought she was being nice, helping an inquisitive woman select the right meat at the Belfair Village Kroger. Turns out while the scammer was picking Doughtie’s brain, her partner in crime was picking the wallet out of Doughtie’s purse.

“This Hispanic woman, she was so nice, dressed to the nines and I’m just trying to help out like I always do,” said the long-time Bluffton resident. “We were in a heavy conversation. I never thought I’d talk for four minutes about ground beef, but I did. She made eye contact with me and was so engaging, I kept my eyes on her while her buddy was up to no good.”

Within minutes, Doughtie started receiving fraud alert texts from her credit cards. The thieves went from World Market to Old Navy to Wal-Mart in a matter of minutes, charging $500 at each location.

“There were a couple of other small charges, like a dollar, which set off alerts with other cards,” Doughtie said. “They must have just been testing it to see if the card was going to work. It was just something that I would have never thought I’d experience in my life, but it happened.”

Sadly, Doughtie is far from alone in being victimized during an aggressive summer of scammers in the Lowcountry.

Over the course of three weeks in June and July, police and fire departments across the region received reports of emails and texts advertising “official” department logo T-shirts for sale as part of a fundraiser. Recipients were told to click on a link for a discount deal in support of their first responders – but it was all just an orchestrated scam.

“The list is long when it comes to all the scams we hear of. The criminals always find the next way to steal,” said Lt. Christian Gonzales of the Bluffton Police Department. “In India, they have call centers with 500 employees and this is all they do, from the calls to the emails. We’d like to think we’re immune in Bluffton, but no one is immune these days.”

Victims might hear, “You owe back taxes to the IRS and are going to be arrested.” Or “You missed jury duty and now you’re a fugitive who needs to pay a fine.” Some are told “You’ve won the lottery, but you need to pay the taxes on your winnings.” It’s one scam hook after another these days.

During the COVID lockdown, the con artists sent emails promoting grocery delivery or an alert from your job about back-to-the-office protocols. If it feels like a relentless assault, that’s because it is often an elaborate, orchestrated, often high-tech grift.

If it’s an email, you’re asked to click a link to make a payment or talk to a staff member. If it’s a call, you’re asked to buy a gift card at a nearby convenient store to pay off your supposed debt.

Perhaps the harshest example as of late is a Hilton Head woman who was told her Geek Squad protection had expired. She was told to call a number with an 808 area code to renew. Once on the phone with “customer service,” she was told by “Dave” that a payment of $445 had already been processed and that Geek Squad would need access to her computer and bank account through a program called “Team Viewer.” The woman granted “Dave” access.

A $44,000 wire transfer from her bank account occurred while on the phone. “Dave” apologized for the error and said he’d take care of it. Instead, her investment portfolio was accessed the next day and she was contacted by “Dave,” who said he’d take all her money unless she mailed a $20,000 check to Michigan.

The woman felt trapped and complied. In all, she was taken for $64,000 and is in the process of trying to recoup the funds with her bank and brokerage.

Doughtie was lucky in comparison – the poachers only got $1,500 in charges, which her credit cards companies have refunded. More alarming was the $500 somehow taken from her checking account without a PIN. Her bank also refunded her.

“You have to file a police report, and I thankfully did that. The bank and the credit cards both asked for the case number. It made getting my refund much easier,” Doughtie said.

Doughtie said a manager at Kroger was helpful in looking back at their camera footage. “They saw the woman take my wallet out of my purse,” she said. “It was caught on camera – three women working together.” Because she had filed the police report, Kroger was able to share the video with them.

As much as the financial robbery was jarring, even worse is the loss of trust and the paranoia the event brought on.

“I’ll never be distracted in a store, I know that. It’s very sad, because we lose that sense of security and insolation from the outside world we feel here in Bluffton,” Doughtie said. “These scammers are trying to turn us all into cold hearts. I feel bad for the folks actually trying to do legitimate fundraising these days.”

The scammers particularly target the senior population, as far too often the elderly prove to be easier targets. Doughtie said this was a hard lesson to learn later in life.

“I don’t take my purse anymore and I have a wallet with a band attached to my wrist,” she said.

Gonzales said there are high tech ways to fight back, like buying electronic protective devices such as RFID blocking sleeves to protect from a high-tech theft of credit or debit card numbers.

“Secure your personal affects, for sure. We’ve got sophisticated criminals out there, so it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for,” Gonzales said.

Avoid clicking on links or opening attachment in emails; don’t believe everything you see or hear; never allow someone access to your financial account; and resist the pressure to act immediately.

“It’s a full-out attack on your sensibilities and your reasoning at times. They make you feel at risk unless you act fast, but that’s one of the biggest tells, the criminals trying to get money quick,” Gonzales said. “The IRS, the power company, any government agency, they are never going to ask for access to your accounts or ask you to pay with a gift card.”

Emails and texts are a particularly easy score for scammers, where one click can lead to an instant identity theft.

“You have to be on guard, period. Always be aware of your surroundings and don’t click on links attached to promises, demands or threats,” Gonzales said.

Doughtie said she has heeded that advice, almost to a fault.

“I could pick that woman out of a lineup, I remember everything about her, but I’m aware all around me now,” Doughtie said. “It’s sad that we have to be so guarded against everyone, but I’m never going to feel that exposed and vulnerable again.”

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.