In 2020, tech-saavy criminals took advantage of a global pandemic to scam over 700,000 Americans out of approximately $4.2 billion through internet-facilitated crimes.
These numbers, released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) Wednesday, represent a nearly 72% increase in victims and a 20% increase in total losses over 2019. In Kansas alone, 3,457 individual victims reported losses of over $19 million due to internet-facilitated crimes.
According to the report, the methods these cyber-criminals used to perpetrate their crimes varied widely, and have grown increasingly sophisticated over the past several years.
Many new scams and cyber-crimes sought to leverage concerns and impacts surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, including CARES Act stimulus funds, unemployment insurance, Paycheck Protection Program loans and Small Business Economic Injury Disaster loans.
One of the most common has been fraudulent unemployment insurance claims. Often this occurs through security breaches of either business or government agencies where criminals can gain access to the personal information of employees, then file unemployment claims in their names. Kansas officials estimate the state paid out around $600 million in these claims. The danger with these, the IC3 report said, is that individuals often do not know their personal information has been compromised until they either receive tax forms from the government or until they try to file a legitimate unemployment claims themselves.
More recently, the agency reports, scams have emerged targeting the COVID-19 vaccine, with emails, advertisements and phone calls from unknown sources asking people to pay out of pocket to receive the vaccine, put their names on vaccine waiting lists, or obtain early access to the vaccines.
And the most vulnerable segments of the population are often the most frequently targeted by internet criminals.
In Kansas, individuals over 50 years old represented the largest portion of victims as well as incurring the greatest financial losses. Various internet- and phone-perpetrated scams cost Kansas seniors over $9 million in 2020.
Hitting close to home
Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir said seniors are targeted because they are often less technologically savvy than younger generations.
“There’s a lot of people that do not understand the dangers,” Bellendir said. “They don’t understand all the ways their information can be manipulated, and that is a big issue.”
Locally, Bellendir said he has seen a rise in a few different types of scams over the past year.
One involves unknown callers claiming to be government officials from the IRS, U.S. Marshals, or even the Sheriff’s Office, stating they have a warrant for the intended victim’s arrest. Often, he said, they will ask to meet at a local bank, and call back at the last minute and request the victims wire money to an account or purchase gift cards to prevent the agent from arresting them.
With these, Bellendir stressed legitimate law enforcement agencies will not call people on the phone with a warrant, so a caller claiming to be from a law enforcement agency should be a red flag.
Another common scam, usually perpetrated via email, involves foreign individuals claiming to need to move money to the U.S., or claiming foreign lottery winnings, and requesting processing fees to initiate the transactions.
A third, and one of the most common scams, according to the IC3 report, is known as a confidence or romance scam. These can take several forms, according to Bellendir.
Most often, an individual calls purporting to be a loved one or romantic partner, and requests money for air travel, bail, medical, or a variety of other expenses. Often these can originate on online dating platforms, but can come through phone calls, as well. Because of the personal nature and perceived connection to the victims, these scams can be especially dangerous, officials say.
Bellendir said this type of scam is also one of the most costly scams officers see reported, with losses sometimes running into the tens of thousands of dollars.
How to protect yourself
Even though these scams can be extremely sophisticated, Bellendir said there are a few steps people can take to prevent themselves from becoming victims.
First and most important, Bellendir said, if you receive a phone call, never give out personal information over the phone such as Social Security numbers, banking information or addresses. Legitimate agencies and organizations who call should already have the information.
Also, Bellendir said, never send money or gift cards to someone you do not know, whether it is an individual, business or purported government agency. Even with online shopping, it is important to take steps to ensure the business you are purchasing from is a legitimate, reputable business with an online presence. He also advised caution when using online payment methods such as PayPal or Google Wallet.
Bellendir advised also taking extra steps to verify the identity of the callers and the agencies they claim to be from.
If the caller claims to be from a government or law enforcement agency, before giving any information, take extra steps to confirm the validity of the caller’s identity, he said. Request a badge or extension number, and ask if you can call them back. Then, he said, locate the legitimate phone number or contact for that agency and call that number back, with the badge or extension number you were given to determine the legitimacy of the caller.
The FBI also recommends using caution when engaging in online communications, including email and web links. Be careful to identify senders of emails, because criminals will often change a single letter of an email to make the email look legitimate. With links, hovering a mouse over the link to see where it is taking you is a good way to identify bogus and dangerous sites.
They also recommend relying on trusted sources such as your health professional or health department for health-related issues, and agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission or IRS for financial and tax information.
Also, officials recommend sticking to the adage, “if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.”
Bellendir said it’s important to protect yourself because when it comes to internet-based crimes, “Once the money is gone, it’s gone.”
There is no way for most law enforcement agencies to recover the money once it is lost, he said. With most of these crimes, the perpetrators are either in a different state or in another country.
Even if they occur inside U.S. borders, these crimes are outside the jurisdiction and investigative capabilities of local law enforcement agency, and anything outside of the country would require the involvement of the FBI. However, Bellendir said the often FBI is most likely not going to investigate those crimes unless they involve extremely large sums.