It was September, about 10 am, when I got a Whatsapp message from my mom. I was at the university, getting ready to teach my English class to Engineering students. For the past 6 years, I have been living and teaching in Canada, but all my immediate family lives in Russia. I got a message from my mom, saying: “Call home. It is urgent.”
You know how scary it is to get this type of message when you are living far away from your family? When you get something like that, your worst fears materialize in your head: “What happened? Is everyone alive? What is going on?” Right away I felt a stomach ache and began to sweat. I dialed my mom’s number, and my sister answered the phone. She never answers my mom’s phone. “Something is wrong, something is definitely wrong,” I thought at that moment. I asked my sister, “Yulia, something happened?” And she said, “Yes, something happened to our mom.” At that moment, the world around stopped existing for me: I did not hear the laugh of the students at the next table; I forgot about my half-finished sandwich; it suddenly became so dark in my eyes – I felt I could faint any moment. My sister continued: “Our parents are at the police now. I don’t know what exactly happened, but it seems like our mom was scammed and became a victim of huge money fraud.” I could not believe my ears. And then she continued… I was silently listening to her, tears running down my face.
For the last week, my mom had been getting calls from bank officers every day. Two major Russian banks were attacking my mom with calls, hourly, every single day. They made her believe her money at the bank was at risk of being stolen. They told her that the scammers were trying to steal all the money from her account. They said that they were having a secret operation to catch the scammers and that my mom should help them. Ten different people called her, confirming the operation. Ten different bank officers with names and credentials – all calls from bank official numbers. She was confused and psychologically manipulated. She did not say anything to my dad, my sister, or me. The bank asked her not to spread the information as they were trying to lure the scammers. They asked her to download a program on her phone through which, according to them, they could track the scammer. And she did. She did…she did it. She trusted them. She believed she was helping to catch the scammers while, in reality, she was helping the very scammers steal our money.
All the credit cards were cashed out. All the money was stolen from our accounts. And, a huge loan was taken under her name. A loan for 3 million rubles. It is around 65K Canadian dollars. Unimaginable sum of money for retired people in Russia. My parents are both retired.
Yes, this really happened to my family. When I heard my sister finish the story, I saw people stare at me. I did not notice I was covered with tears, mascara all smudged under the eyes. I did not care. I did not even have time to process this information when it was time for me to run to teach a class and it was too late to cancel it. I ran to the bathroom, washed my face quickly, came to the classroom – hands shaking – and gave a class I don’t even remember how: it was all foggy and unreal. My mouth was saying words automatically, my head was somewhere else. I was looking at my students, but seeing only my mom’s face.
My mom took it pretty hard. Someone who used to be a rock for all of us for years, suddenly collapsed. She felt deeply ashamed. She wanted to hide from people. She did not want to talk to anyone. She felt guilty. She was angry – at scammers, at herself. She cried (I have seen my mom cry only once in my childhood). She was vulnerable and completely crushed.
We persuaded her to try to fight for it. We went to police. When the bank started demanding monthly payment for the loan, we filed a lawsuit against these 2 banks. We went to court. It had been going on for the last 3 months. Till this January.
Two weeks ago, on January 14, the decision of the court came. Against us. The banks won. We lost. The loans were not annulled. The court decided that it was our fault to trust the scammers. It was our fault the money got stolen. It was our fault that the loans were taken on our name. We lost.
The banks did not care who took the money. As long as someone is paying, it is all they care about. The police could not help. The judge could not help. You see in countries like Russia, it is hard to prove anything, to find justice. You cannot really rely on the justice system or police. No one cares. No one can help.
There is no happy ending to this story so far. My family will be paying the debt they did not take for the next 5 years of their life. I will be paying it with them, helping in any possible way. There is nothing that can be changed at this point. So if nothing can be changed, why am I writing this post? Well, mostly because it helps me. Sharing this story helps me to heal. I feel sometimes we are too ashamed to share private and embarrassing stories in our life. We only want to look and sound cool, strong, smart, or funny. We are afraid to look vulnerable. I was as well. For a long time, I was thinking to share this story or not. While finishing this post, I am glad I did it. It feels liberating to put this all on paper and send it to an open world. And let it be. And let it be.