Not too long ago, our receptionist told me that a woman at the front desk needed to speak to a reporter. I walked that way and felt a twinge of unease shortly after I began talking to Stacey Freedman, who was holding a folder stuffed with scraps of paper. Her friendly face and pleasant voice evaporated quickly, replaced by a strained visage and frantic, haphazard delivery. Her nerves appeared shot. She had trouble describing her problem. She fidgeted and struggled to finish sentences.
What I could make out was that her phones and computers had been hacked. She described being inundated with spam and receiving oddball texts and photos. Welcome to my world, I thought. After 10 minutes, I was ready for the conversation to end.
Over the course of an hour, though, Stacey settled down and managed to describe what could only be considered as High-Tech Hell, a hacking so severe it is pushing both Stacey and longtime husband Andy Freedman to the brink of breakdowns. Stacey and Andy returned to our office a few days later, and we spent a couple of hours picking over their shattered lives and psyches. The Fort Worth couple’s story is harrowing and claustrophobic and steeped in paranoia, like an episode of Black Mirror. All that’s missing is an ending.
The Freedmans need one.
“I’ve thought about driving off a cliff,” Stacey said. “I thought about driving to Millwood [mental hospital] and checking myself in.”
It was 2013 when Stacey’s phone was hacked for the first time, she said. Before long, the hack engulfed her iPad and laptop and spread to her television and other electronic devices, including her microwave, she said. Since then, her phone has been flooded with thousands of random photos, bizarre texts, unnerving emails, and unwanted apps. Some link her husband –– who said he rarely uses the computer –– to porn sites he swears he has never visited. Other oddities: When Stacey tries to make a phone call, the numbers “0111” are inadvertently placed in front of the number being dialed, which prompts a recorded message saying the number can’t be placed as dialed. Her computer passwords are changed frequently without her permission. Photos of beloved family members, such as her grandson, suddenly become attached to obscene text messages from strangers.
Not long after the phone problems, the modem on the couple’s cable TV system stopped working. They called the cable company and had the modem replaced. It burned out four more times in rapid succession. The cable TV company couldn’t figure out the problem. Now, the couple goes without cable TV. They received a phone bill that was 25 pages long and listed hundreds of phone calls –– all of them one minute in length –– placed to numbers they’ve never seen or called. Photos of Stacey have appeared on her phone, seemingly taken of her while she was standing in front of her own TV. This makes her think someone is watching her through her smart TV. The images on her laptop screen began appearing upside down. She no longer uses a laptop.
Stacey’s phone receives items describing in great detail how to perform illegal acts such as breaking into ATM machines. Other emails are written in languages she doesn’t understand or include pages of coding that make no sense to her. Sensitive personal material shows up from myriad sources, including large companies and even the FBI, she said. Over the next few years, the couple would go through a dozen phones and computers and numerous internet providers and cable companies. The Freedmans said they tried convincing the FBI to investigate several years ago but were told that none of the hacking involved threats of physical harm, so the FBI didn’t respond. The couple was living in Burleson when the hacking started and reported the problem to Burleson police. Later, the couple moved to Fort Worth and spoke with a police sergeant in 2017.
Police told them to notify their phone company. The phone company told them to call police. “Verizon told us we were using enough data for a small college,” Andy said. “You’d think they would do something about that, but it’s always, ‘We’ll get our fraud squad to call you back.’ They never do.”
After a week or so on a new plan or phone, the problems recur, Stacey said. She would buy the most recently updated Apple models, hoping they would provide more security. Each one was quickly flooded with unwanted apps, texts, and photos, she said. Imagine calling a customer service number at a cable TV or phone company and trying to explain all of this. “They think I’m crazy,” Stacey said.
Stacey and Andy provided me with a large box filled with printouts of screenshots, emails, and other documents to verify the couple’s claims. Andy remained poised, but Stacey alternated between jittery frustration and shellshock. She has started attending therapy sessions and was told she exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
I found the name of a computer security expert who worked at Atlanta-based Bishop Fox and was quoted in a news article on hacking. I called company spokesperson Sarah Broome, who said she would have a specialist call me back. However, I received an email soon after. “I spoke to one of our most senior cybersecurity experts and unfortunately this isn’t something we can really shed any light into and not something we can comment on,” Broome wrote. “If you are ever looking for a security expert on any future stories, feel free to reach out!”
I told Andy about the exchange. “Welcome to our world,” he said.
I reached out to an Austin-based firm but received no response.
The Freedmans have been married for 25 years and have two grown children, but the recent years have exhausted all of them and turned them against one another at times. The massive hacking made Stacey suspect her husband had cheated online, perhaps visiting a questionable site that unleashed a virus.
“I was so freaked out,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Is he doing it?’ Who knows all your personal info? Is it the kids? When you lay your head down and at night and don’t know if you can trust your husband or your kids …”
In 2016, Andy took a polygraph test to prove to his wife that he had nothing to do with the hacking and had not cheated or engaged in online promiscuity. They provided the copy of the results. “We’ve been through hell and back,” Andy said. “We’re barely hanging on. We’re barely married. Imagine every day for seven days a week there is a cloud hanging over you.”
The clean polygraph soothed Stacey’s mind for a second. Then, she thought, if her husband wasn’t involved, who was? “Who hates us enough to do this?” she wondered. The Freedmans have suspicions. Their daughter went through a divorce in 2012 and lost custody of her child. The Freedmans sought grandparental visitation rights and allegedly became crossways with the child’s father and his attorney. The child’s father works in the military with computers, the Freedmans believe, but the couple hasn’t been able to prove anything. They’re hoping a forensic audit of their technological devices might uncover evidence, but those searches can be expensive. The couple that once lived in a house valued at more than $200,000 is now living in a one-room apartment and struggling financially. Their mental anguish has spilled over into every area of their lives, stretching their patience and bank accounts to the breaking point. Eventually, Stacey became fatalistic. “I let things go, like bills,” she said. “I got in a shell. I got depressed. I didn’t care if we went bankrupt. I didn’t care if I had anything.”
A month ago, they started a GoFundMe page to raise money to hire a forensics auditor to solve the mystery. “We don’t know if that’s going to give us answers,” Andy said. “This is uncharted territory for us. We’re not tech savvy.”
So far, the account has received one $5 donation. They’ve tried approaching the news media, but their wild, murky story –– and strained presentation –– can overwhelm listeners. “This has built up and built up,” Andy said. “We’re just trying anything and anybody to get us some answers. We just want a stopping point where we’re not bombarded every day.”
Maybe somebody reading this story will recognize what is happening to them, Andy said. Maybe they’ll reach out with a solution.
“Stacey has gone through so much,” Andy said. “All we want to be is normal. And we were. We had life by the tail. This has consumed us and made us two totally different people than we were five years ago.”
Stress practically oozes from their pores. “I want an end to it,” Stacey said. “I want to live life. I want to be carefree.”
Who knows what a carefree life will look like? They have considered drastic measures, including changing their identities, moving away, dropping out. “I tell her, ‘We’re going to end up on a mountain somewhere with an antenna and a rotary phone,’ ” Andy said. “We would be perfectly fine with it. This has been five years of constant turmoil.”