NORTH OGDEN — It started with a phone call.

Machel Andersen picked up. The man on the other line said he was an official with the Social Security Administration. He told her that her Social Security number had been compromised — and tied to a car found at the Texas-Mexico border with blood inside.

The man told Andersen that her Social Security number had been used to set up multiple bank accounts in connection with a drug cartel, and they wanted to know when she had been in Texas.

Confused and scared, Andersen said she’d never been to Texas. In response, the man on the other end of the line said he needed to put her in touch with the Drug Enforcement Administration. After a brief pause, another man identified himself as a DEA official and told Andersen that the accounts tied to the drug cartel had been set up under her Social Security number, and if she wanted to protect herself and her family, she would need to transfer all of her money to a “safe place offshore” while they worked to capture the culprits.

“He said, ‘I need you to get in your car, drive safely to your bank, and transfer everything you can think of that’s under your Social Security number into your checking and then wire it,’” Andersen recalled in an interview with the Deseret News at her North Ogden home Thursday.

“He said, ‘You need to know your family’s in danger, that this is a very powerful drug cartel. They’ll be watching you. You need to act as normal as possible. And they know where your family is, so it’s very important that you don’t say anything to anyone, including your husband. You need to make sure that you’re happy, that you act normal.”

“I was terrified,” Andersen said.

So she did as she was told.

That day, Dec. 6, Andersen tried to go to the bank, but was told it was too late to complete a wire transfer, so she’d have to wait until Monday. The man told her to wait and go back — but in the meantime the DEA would be “watching your bank accounts” and if she made any withdrawals they would know. And, he told her if she told anyone — including her husband — they would also know.

They then emailed her what appeared to be a warrant for her arrest that included her address, her phone number, her birthdate and her Social Security number.

A fake arrest warrant that was sent to Machel Andersen as part of a scam that led to her losing $153,706 is pictured on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019. Identifying personal information has been blacked out by the Deseret News. | Provided by Machel Andersen

“He was very aggressive. Very frightening,” Andersen said.

Now, hindsight is 20/20.

“It doesn’t make any sense now. It makes no sense. My cold self can look at it and say, ‘That was ridiculous. But in the heat of the moment ...,” she said, shaking her head and trailing off. “Right now, when I look at it, I just go, ‘You have to be dumber than a box of rocks to do this, really.’”

Though embarrassed, Andersen shared her story with the Deseret News in hopes that no one else will fall for the same scam — no matter how elaborate, aggressive or intimidating the scam may be.

Terrified, Andersen told no one. That Monday, with the scammer still on the phone with her, she walked into an America First Credit Union branch and wire transferred over $153,000 to a fraudulent bank account named Bank of China, based in Hong Kong.

Less than a week later — after she got more phone calls from the fraudster telling her they would seize her house if she didn’t give them $200,000 more — Andersen did an internet search and found troves of stories and press releases of DEA scams.

“I started reading and I came to the realization that I had just given away all of our money, and I was never going to get it back,” she said.

“Our life savings is gone,” she said.

Kyle Andersen and his wife, Machel, look at records and receipts from a scam that cost them $153,706 during an interview at their home in North Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Andersen was in tears when she told her husband while driving in the car. She was so distraught, her husband thought the worst — that someone was sick, hurt or dead.

“She’s sobbing all the way home, telling me, ‘I’ve done the worst thing in the world. I have ruined us,’” her husband said, “which is just not true, but that’s how she felt.”

Her husband, Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden, comes to a quick defense of his wife, saying she’s been “beating herself to death” in embarrassment. But he says she was “victimized” by aggressive and persistent fraudsters who literally made her scared for her family and for her life.

“He terrorized her,” Kyle Andersen said. “They made her feel like either the cartels were going to get her or she was going to be in jail for the rest of her life. ... It made me sick to look at that.

“My wife had been violated. I couldn’t believe she had been through that and been through it alone.”

He added, “Machel has cried and cried and cried and cried. ... She has blamed herself. She has been to hell and back because of this.”

Now, Andersen is looking to sponsor legislation — not yet certain what he can or can’t do as a state lawmaker, but intent on working with banking institutions and perhaps federal officials to spread a public awareness campaign and help prevent it from happening to anyone else.

Above all, Andersen wants people to know that government officials will not demand money over the phone — and will never demand that you keep things secret. He hopes more to be done to help educate the public, including signs in banks warning of fraud or more training for bank tellers to help identify or warn of fraud.

“If anybody would have said anything like that, which I know they’re all aware of, that would have clicked and hopefully she would have said, ‘No that’s exactly what’s happening to me’ and it would have stopped,” Kyle Andersen said, wondering why more questions weren’t asked at the America First branch.

As for losing their life savings, Kyle Andersen says they’ve been in touch with the FBI to report the fraud, but there’s “nothing that can be done” to get the money back. It’s unlikely there will be any justice, either, he said, because there is no extradition agreement with China.

But in his mind, much worse things could have happened.

“I’m in a unique position where I get to express to my wife, ‘My love for you is greater and more important than all the money — our entire savings — and you are more important,” he said, his wife at his side. “I’m just glad that she’s safe. I’m just glad that she’s OK, and I just need her to be OK now with the residual of this. Because she continues to beat herself up.”

Kyle Andersen said their home is paid for and he has a pension, so he’s not worried about their future.

“She’s fine. I’m fine. Nobody’s sick. Nobody’s dead. We’re blessed,” Kyle Andersen said. “We had cake and we had icing. They took the icing. We still have the cake. So, we’re fine. But we so don’t want anybody else to go through something like this.”

Now, Andersen has planned meetings with officials, including Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association, who told the Deseret News the Andersen case is among the worst he’s ever heard of.

“Clearly, financially, it’s one of the more substantial losses I’m familiar with, but listening to them describe the (tactics), it’s clearly one of the more emotionally disturbing episodes that I’ve heard,” Headlee said. “As aggressive as this was, it’s just beyond belief that someone would do this.”

Headlee said it seems criminals are becoming “more and more aggressive,” and the Andersens’ story demonstrated “a new level of aggression and reprehensibility.”

Headlee said bankers are trained to recognize fraud, but he’s open to having a discussion with Kyle Andersen to discuss ways to improve.

“We’re going to do all we can do to make sure someone is not being defrauded,” Headlee said. “It’s troubling to think that may not have occurred, but again, the other side of that is the criminals are effective in what they do. Even if she was so scared, even if all of the right questions had been asked, she might not have given the right answer.”

Wire transfers overseas, especially to China, are often instant and “nearly impossible” to reverse, Headlee warned.

He urges anyone who receives a threatening phone call to hang up and report it to authorities. Anyone insisting on secrecy should also not be trusted, and he also urged people to understand government officials will never contact people by phone and demand immediate payment of money.

“That’s what people need to emblazon in their consciousness, that this is not how our government works,” Headlee said. “No one is going to call you over the phone and demand you pay money immediately.”

The DEA in March issued a press release warning of an “alarming” increase of scam calls in which scammers have posed as DEA or other law enforcement officials threatening arrest for involvement in trafficking activities.

“It’s important to underscore that DEA personnel will never contact practitioners or members of the public by telephone to demand money or any other form of payment,” the news release states. “DEA will not request any personal or sensitive information over the phone. Notification of a legitimate investigation or legal action is made via official letter or in person.”

Impersonating a federal agent is a violation of federal law. The DEA urges anyone receiving a telephone call from a person purporting to be a DEA special agent or other law enforcement official seeking money to refuse the demand and report it using an online form or by calling 877-792-2873.

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The Andersens said they still had a “great” Christmas with family — though Machel Andersen noted with a laugh there “wasn’t much money to buy Christmas.”

“Maybe that made Christmas just a little more special,” her husband added, chuckling. 

“We have very generous friends,” Machel Andersen said, describing friends who came to them and asked, ‘Are you OK? Is Christmas taken care of? Are you going to be OK?’”

“We live among the finest people in the world,” Kyle Andersen said. “We count that in our blessings. We have each other. We have our home. And we have our family, our children and our grandchildren, and the best friends that people could have.”

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