Fraud against those age 50 and over is a massive problem, especially schemes that use the internet. 

One common internet fraud is a technical-support scheme. In these schemes, a criminal convinces a consumer to purchase phony, worthless, or malicious technical-support services for their computer. In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission received over 142,000 complaints about technical-support schemes. 

The vast majority of complaints came from people over 50 years old. Aggregate reported losses were $54 million, with the most common reported loss between $100 and $1,000. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg since most of these crimes are not reported.

The Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Wyoming are committed to investigating and prosecuting elder fraud in general, and technical-support schemes in particular. The Department and its federal law enforcement partners recently announced the largest coordinated sweep of elder fraud cases in history. 

The sweep involved more than 260 defendants from around the world who victimized more than two million Americans. In each case, offenders allegedly engaged in financial schemes that targeted or affected seniors. In total, the charged elder fraud schemes caused over $750 million of alleged losses.

While law enforcement is an essential tool in the fight against fraud, the most effective way to combat fraud is to educate yourself so you don’t become a victim. Then you can help educate your friends and family so they don’t fall prey to these schemes either.

So how do you spot a tech-support scam? Most tech-support scams start with a pop-up on your computer, but they may start through unsolicited phone calls or emails. Some scams even show up when you search for “technical support” on a reputable search engine. Regardless of how they start, the criminals use similar tactics, so we’ll focus on pop-up ads.

Typically, a tech-support scam pop-up asks you to call a toll-free number or follow a link, and urges you to do so immediately because you will lose personal data if you don’t. Legitimate companies do NOT display pop-up warnings and ask you to call them about viruses or security problems. The easiest way to protect yourself is to close the pop-up, close your browser, and don’t call the number or click the link. If the pop-up won’t close, turn off your computer.

If criminals get you to call, they will pretend to work for a software company, computer manufacturer, cable or satellite provider, online bank, or GPS software company. They will falsely tell you of some urgent electronic threat (like a virus, malware, or hacking) that requires you to act immediately or risk losing personal data. 

From there, the criminals may immediately ask you for money to repair the phony problem with their worthless services. Often, they will ask for payment by gift card or wire transfer. Again, legitimate tech-support companies do not ask you to pay by gift card or wire transfer. They do not ask you to show them the gift card numbers or one of your checks through the web-cam on your computer. If they are asking you to do these things, it is almost certainly a fraud.

In the worst-case, the criminals will ask you to give them remote access to your computer to run a “diagnostic test” or “scan” for the alleged virus. Once they have access to your computer, they can steal your identity, your passwords, and your banking information. So don’t give anyone remote access to your computer unless you are 100 percent certain they are legitimate and trustworthy. When in doubt, say “no.”

One especially dangerous scheme is the refund scam, which usually comes after you’ve been involved in a tech-support scam. In a refund scam, the criminal calls and tells you that you are entitled to a refund. They then call back and say that they mistakenly gave you too much money. 

At this point, they often have access to your bank account from the tech-support scam, and they’ve moved a large amount of money from your savings account to your checking account so it looks like they really gave you too much money. The criminal will then ask you to drive to your bank and wire the “excess refund” to them. They will want to stay on the phone with you while you do this. Again, legitimate companies do not do business this way. So, if someone is asking you to do these things, they are probably criminals.

If you are contacted by one of these criminals, don’t talk to them. If you already did, cut off all contact immediately. Call AARP’s FraudWatch for help. Report the scheme to the FBI at www.ic3.gov and the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/complaint.

And then tell your friends and family so they don’t fall victim to a similar scheme. Together, we can stamp out scams targeting those age 50 and over.

(Mark Klaassen is the U.S. Attorney and Eric Heimann the Assistant U.S. Attorney)

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