Elder Fraud: Protecting Our Seniors from Scams, Part III

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This is the third article in a four-part series focusing on elder fraud; the Grandparent
Scam was featured in the September 2023 issue. The Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) reported that 88,262 victims of fraud age 60 and older suffered $3.1 billion in losses
in 2022, an 84% increase from the prior year, with each victim losing an average of
$35,101. Native Chula Vistan and current Bonita resident Elizabeth Cox is Immediate
Past President of the FBI San Diego Citizens Academy Alumni Association.

 

FBI Warns of Tech Support Scams

The marvels of the digital age – from instant communication to online shopping – have undoubtedly simplified many aspects of modern life. With these conveniences come threats, especially to vulnerable populations like the elderly. The particularly sinister scam that targets the most victims results from fake technology support claims.

What is a Tech Support Scam?

Tech support scams involve fraudsters posing as technical support representatives, typically
from major corporations like Microsoft, Apple, or Google. They alert the victim to a made-up issue with their device or software, often through a phone call, pop-up warning, or deceptive email. Whether it’s to extract money for “essential” services or to mine personal data, their methods are consistently manipulative. Emails and pop-ups often phish for quick clicks, perhaps telling the recipient that their McAfee or Norton anti-virus software is expiring, or the GeekSquad is trying to reach them about their account. Phone calls may initiate from a “tech support team” or “your bank.” If you receive an email or phone call like this, stop and think – do you have an account or use these service providers? Have you experienced issues or initiated contact for tech support? If so, navigate to the company’s website or login to your account on your own…don’t click a link in an email that may be malicious and never call a phone number from a pop-up window.

The FBI’s Involvement

The FBI has been vigilant about issuing repeated warnings and guidelines to protect our
seniors. Through its Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3.gov), the FBI consistently flags tech support scams as a major cyber threat. Recognizing the vulnerability of seniors, several proactive measures raise awareness about the increasing frequency of these scams, their modus operandi, and prevention measures. The FBI conducts joint operations with other agencies and international counterparts to bust and takedown major tech support scam rings. In partnership with organizations like the FBI San Diego Citizens Academy Alumni Association and San Diego Seniors Community Foundation, the FBI engages in community outreach, gives presentations, and provides resources to equip seniors with knowledge about such threats.

“Tech support scams can be tricky and it’s startling to get a pop up on your computer, a text message, or a phone call saying you’ve got a computer virus or your bank accounts have been compromised,” said FBI San Diego Supervisory Special Agent Mike Rod. “In these situations, it’s best to slow down.  Never give unknown or unverified persons remote access to your devices or accounts. Always ask important questions and check the caller’s legitimacy. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.”

 

Recent Examples

  • According to the FBI Boston field office, a couple from Maine lost $1.1 million after
    receiving a pop-up alert advising them their computer had been breached and there was
    an attempt to compromise their banking information. The couple was asked to call
    someone who was purportedly with Fidelity Investments and was told to download
    UltraViewer software on their computer so that “Microsoft” and “Fidelity” representatives
    could monitor for any additional fraudulent activity. The fraudsters convinced the couple
    to wire funds from their retirement account to Coinbase and told them to take out a home equity line of credit and wire those funds to Coinbase for “safekeeping” before the
    scammers eventually cut off all contact with them.
  • Last year, five men from India and Canada were indicted, and a woman from New
    Jersey pleaded guilty in connection with a multi-million dollar transnational tech support
    scam that targeted more than 20,000 seniors in the United States and Canada. The
    fraud ring made pop-up windows appear on victims’ computers, falsely claiming that the
    devices were infected with a virus, and directed victims to call a toll-free number to
    receive technical support. Using the names of reputable technology and antivirus
    companies without authorization, the scammers tricked victims into believing that their
    computers were infected with non-existent viruses. Victims who called the “tech support” numbers on the pop-ups were connected to call centers in India where staff conveniently offered to “fix” the purported issue for a hefty fee.
  • An elderly couple was part of a month-long tech support scam that started with a game
    of online solitaire and ended with more than $3 million being swindled. When their
    computer froze, a pop-up window said the computer had been hacked. The target was
    asked to call a well-known computer software company for tech support. A “federal
    agent” said they needed remote access to scan the computer, then reported that bank
    and investment accounts had been compromised and money needed to be transferred
    to bitcoin accounts for safekeeping. Fake cryptocurrency wallets gave the seniors a false
    sense of security that their money was protected.
  • A recent FBI IC3 public service announcement warned older adults of scams where
    fraudsters instruct victims to send cash, wrapped in magazines, via shipping companies.

 

Why Are Seniors More Susceptible?

Many older individuals aren’t accustomed to the digital age's intricacies – they aren’t digital natives that grew up with technology all around them – making them more susceptible to misinformation about their devices. The “Greatest Generation” and Boomers’ upbringing was rooted in trust towards institutions and authority, a trait scammers exploit. Finally, age- associated cognitive decline can sometimes impair the ability to discern fraudulent activities.

Protective Measures

As the FBI warns, legitimate customer and tech support representatives will never initiate
unsolicited contact with customers. They will not demand immediate payment or request
payment via cash, prepaid gift cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrency either.

  • Stay Informed: Keep abreast of warnings and guidelines shared by law enforcement
    agencies like the FBI.
  • Reliable Security Software: Ensure that device software is updated regularly to benefit from the latest security enhancements. A comprehensive antivirus program can serve as a primary defense against malicious intrusions.
  • Take a Breath: Resist the pressure to act quickly. Criminals urge victims to act fast to
    protect their device or account.
  • Double-Check: If confronted with an unsolicited tech support call or email, verify its
    authenticity by reaching out to the company directly using contact details from their
    official channels.
  • Guard Personal Data: Always be wary of sharing personal or financial details unless
    you’re certain of the requester’s legitimacy. Never download remote access programs that give strangers access to your personal devices and accounts.
  • Strengthen Passwords: Use robust, diverse passwords across different accounts.
    Consider using a reputable password manager.

 

Looking Ahead
While the challenges posed by tech support scams are considerable, they are by no means insurmountable. Knowledge remains our most powerful protection. By heeding the FBI’s advice and ensuring our elderly are informed and cautious, we can make significant strides in combatting this cyber menace.