What is a phishing scam?  The FBI investigates after Deacon Stickney, conned $150K wife

STICKNEY, Ill. (WLS) — A local deacon and his wife say they lost more than $150,000 in an elaborate scheme known as phishing.

The couple say their entire retirement savings are gone and now hope to warn others to think twice before opening emails.

It starts by clicking on a link. Now, this is a case of concern to the FBI.

The senior couple from Stickney said they spoke to alert others and prayed they would get at least some of their money back.

“We lost everything,” said Deacon Frank Mamolella.

Mamolella knew something was wrong when he came home and saw his wife on her knees crying.

“He said, ‘They took all the money out of our bank account' I said, ‘How,'” he recalls.

His wife Margaret said she received an email on her cell phone from what she thought was an antivirus company, thanking her for her recent purchase.

“I said, ‘I didn't order this. I'm not going to be charged $400 for something,” says Margaret.

He said he clicked on a link in the email, looked at the phone number and called the company to dispute what he believed was an inaccurate charge.

Margret said a representative agreed to issue a refund. Later, he said he made a mistake, claiming to have accidentally returned $40,000 instead of just $400.

He said when he checked his bank account, there it was.

“There's $40,000 there. He needs it back,” Margaret said.

Margaret said the man instructed her to give him $40,000 back — and quickly — so he wouldn't get fired.

Margaret said she went to her bank and wired the money according to instructions.

“After that, I felt like it should be the end, but it wasn't,” he said.

He says the man called back, said the cable is not connecting. So, he sent more money and he said that didn't work either – so, he sent more.

In the end, Margaret says she transferred more than $150,000.

“I'm sick. That's my nest egg. I'm scared,” she said.

Her husband said when he found out about what had happened, he immediately called the bank and the police.

It was then that he found out that his wife fell for a phishing scam.

According to The latest FBI internet crime reportphishing scams top the list, with over 300,000 victims and over $52 million in losses.

Cybersecurity expert Davis Barton says phishing attacks start with an email that appears to be from a legitimate business, asking you to click on a link.

“They send them links. They send them infected files. They do multiple evil things at once to try to take advantage of people who frankly don't understand the technology,” Barton said.

In Margaret's case, she said that perhaps fraudsters hacked into her bank account, which allowed them to move money from her savings account into her checking account to make it look like the company deposited $40,000 in so-called “accidental refunds”.

However, to get the money into the suspected scammer's account, they need Margaret to send a telegram.

The Stickneys said they had reported the case to the FBI and were praying for justice for them.

But Deacon Frank admits his faith is waning.

“It tests my marriage. It tests my faith in other people,” he said. “This is devastating. I'm breaking now.”

The couple's bank said they tried to terminate the cable but were unable to get the money back.

However, just as the couple was starting to break down, they said they recently received a letter from the FBI informing them that the agency was conducting an investigation into their case.

To avoid phishing scams, don't assume an email that looks like it's from a business is real. If in doubt, go to the company's official website and find the contact number for more information. Be careful before you click on links or open attachments and never send money to strangers.

For more tips on avoiding this type of scam, visit FBI site.