AUSTIN, Texas — Imposter scams are the most common type of scams people encounter, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). They’re usually someone posing as a government official, like an IRS agent.
As one KVUE viewer learned, a scammer can pose as anyone.
She asked us not to show her face or reveal her name because the people she says conned her know where she lives. For the purposes of this piece, we’ve chosen to call her “Suzie.”
“I just fell for it,” Suzie said.
Suzie said someone posing as a family member reached out to her through Facebook Messenger and told her about a group giving away government grant money. She thought a short application to Community Empowerment Block Grant could get her thousands of dollars to use in any way she wanted.
The application was sent as a message on Facebook Messenger and asked personal questions including her name, address, occupation and income.
Suzie said figured that was all typical application information.
“I had to do the front and back of my license,” Suzie said.
Then, a reply told her she needed to pay a verification fee. It directed her to use gift cards as the form of payment.
“Why do I need to give you anything?” Suzie asked herself.
Suzie said she suggested taking fees out of her grant money but was told gift cards only.
She knew that was a red flag. So, she went back to the message thread she thought was from her family. She thought it was someone she trusted and usually communicated with via Messenger.
She still didn’t know it was an imposter.
“So I said, ‘Are you sure this is not a scam?’ I’m asking my family member. ‘No, it’s not,’” Suzie said.
Suzie spent more than $1,500 on gift cards from XBox, FootLocker, Sephora and Steam.
“I take the picture, scratch it off so he can get the PIN number,” Suzie said.
After sending in money, she received a video message claiming to have her money being delivered by FedEx.
“That is your package,” a person in the background of the video said.
Suzie thought she would be paid $95,000.
“There goes the trucks,” someone said in another video
No truck arrived. The scammers told Suzie the truck was stopped by the “state tax officer” and she needed to send more money to cover the verification fee, package legitimate fee and security fee.
The person also started using language not common to her family member. So, Suzie picked up the phone and called the person she thought she was messaging.
“I said, ‘Did you receive your money?’ And she’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I should have called her in the beginning, but I didn’t. Never felt I needed to do that. We just don’t have normal everyday, ‘Hey, how you?’ You know?” Suzie said.
What Suzie experienced was a double impersonation – one as a relative, the other as a business.
“If you get contacted by somebody you think you know or who purported to be somebody you know, the likelihood of falling for a scam increases exponentially,” said Zulfikar Ramzan, chief scientist at Aura, a cybersecurity company that uses artificial intelligence for various online protections.
“We just had a recent survey at Aura and found that more than 90% of people are at moderate to high risk of becoming victims of scams, which at first sounds like an astonishingly high number. But the reality is that nowadays scammers have access to a treasure trove of information about us,” Ramzan added.
Jason Hudson, FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) for the Austin area, agreed.
“The trends here in Austin are similar across the nation. The numbers continue to go up,” Hudson said.
Federal records show more fraud cases in our area involve imposter schemes than sweepstakes, lotteries, fake investments and phone schemes combined.
“These scams have become even more and more complex using multiple facets, different techniques in order to lure in their victims,” Hudson said.
Hudson said scammers typically request payment through gift cards or cryptocurrency because those payment methods are harder to track. He said a person who falls for an online scheme should take three immediate steps:
- Contact your bank
- Contact your credit card company
- File a police report with local and federal law enforcement
The FBI runs the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
“By you reporting that information, it allows the individual to flag that to law enforcement. Our analysts on the back end of IC3.gov will be able to take that information, categorize that information and collate it to see if they can identify specific trends and specific actors with the end goal that we want to effect some sort of consequences on these individuals,” Hudson said.
Hudson said the FBI will run its initial analysis and push the information to law enforcement partners in the U.S. and abroad.
The KVUE Defenders reported on international schemes five years ago. The federal government will work with foreign governments to find criminals seek restitution.
“The analogy I like to use is we spend so much time and energy protecting our physical homes that we put locks on our doors and we have guards in our windows who put alarm systems and so on, and yet our digital dwellings are pretty much unprotected and there are back side doors, entrances you even know about,” Ramzan said. “And people could be living in your digital house for months on end without you being even aware of it. And that’s not an exaggeration.”
Suzie said she never would have believed a government grant scheme had the criminals contacted her directly. She fell for it because she thought the information came from someone she knew and trusted and who had gone through the process.
The Defenders investigated the group’s Facebook page. We found two titled “Community Empowerment Block Grant.”
Dozens of people requested info on their posts. Dozens of people may be victims.
Here are some of the red flags the Defenders caught:
- The site is listed as a health and beauty website but shows nothing about the subject
- No details were listed in the “About” section
- All of the posts were claiming to show people receiving large stacks of cash
- Pictures could be traced back to news articles, press releases and stock video using reverse image searches like TinEye, Google Reverse Image and Yandex
- Some of the photos showed apparent edits or misrepresentation
“How I fell for this – I’m beating myself up. But I was just led in the beginning not to worry about this,” Suzie said.
Suzie tried getting her money back. XBox, Footlocker, Sephora and Steam would not issue refunds. She paid for the cards with cash.
“They’ve got my information. They know where I live. They know everything,” Suzie said.
It’s not only money lost in these types of schemes.
“It’s a peace of mind that I don’t have. I mean, this is my sanctuary,” Suzie said.
Fearing for her safety, Suzie plans to move out of her apartment once her lease ends.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through, and I just want people to be aware,” Suzie said.
Tips on how to stay safe:
- If you’re dealing with someone who wants you to purchase gift cards for payment, stop communicating with them
- Do not click on any links from someone you don’t know
- Do not give someone who contacts you unexpectedly remote access to your computer
- Never call back an unknown number, especially by clicking an unexpected link. If it is a business, look up the customer service phone number or contact information listed on invoices and account statements. Call verified numbers directly to confirm any information
- Know the government will never call, text or contact you on social media claiming you owe money or to offer help with a government grant or stimulus payment
- Do not give personal information to anyone who contacts you claiming to be from a government agency and asking for personal/financial information
- Question any message that gives a sense of urgency such as your account has been compromised, your computer infected, or a loved one is in trouble. There should never be dire consequences such as an arrest if you don’t pay immediately
- Do not rely on caller ID. Scammers have tools to make it appear they are calling from a legitimate business or government number
According to Grants.gov, watch out for offers such as these:
“‘Great news! You are eligible to receive a government grant.’
The government does not contact individuals to award grants for which there has been no application. An individual who makes this claim is not from the government and could be trying to collect private personal data from you, such as your Social Security number, bank account number or other such information.
‘For a small fee, you can obtain a government grant.’
The government does not charge a fee for individuals or entities applying for a federal grant. While financial information may be required as part of the application process, it should be submitted through a government website, such as Grants.gov, and there should never be a cost to you.
‘The Federal Bureau of Grant Awards has awarded you a $8,000 grant.’
Beware of individuals claiming to work for grants-related government bureaus and departments that do not actually exist. The individual may even provide a valid address for a government office, adding a touch of realism to their claim – but do not be fooled.
‘Our office is located in Washington, D.C.’
Current technology can fool caller ID systems into reporting that a caller is phoning from Washington, D.C. In fact, a scam artist could be calling from anywhere in the world. Similar tactics can be used with email addresses in online communication, so be alert!
‘This type of federal grant does not require an application.’
Every grant from the federal government involves an application submitted through a government website, such as Grants.gov. Also, you cannot apply for federal grants over the phone or via email. Any individual claiming that a grant does not require an application, or requires only a phone call or an email, is attempting to scam you.
‘You won the government grant in a drawing.’
The government does not award grants based on a drawing or raffle; an individual or entity must first apply for the grant through a federal website, like Grants.gov. Any individual who claims the government is awarding a grant, for example, to a lucky group of citizens who have paid their taxes on time is attempting to scam you.
‘You have been awarded a federal grant that you can spend any way you like.’
Federal grants are usually awarded for specific programs, research or projects – most often to local governments, organizations, institutions and universities. Beware of any individual who promises a government award that can be spent on paying down tuition or credit card debt, or home electronics and décor.”
Aura’s 25 Warning Signs of Identity Theft:
- Unfamiliar charges on your bank statement
- Strange or unrecognized credit card charges
- New credit cards or loans in your name
- Unexpected calls from debt collectors
- You’re denied credit
- Bounced checks (if you know you have available funds)
- A sudden drop in your credit score
- Hard inquiries on your credit report
- Calls verifying unfamiliar purchases
- Your health insurance benefits limit is maxed out
- Unfamiliar medical bills
- Inaccurate information in your medical files
- Someone stole your income tax refund
- There’s a warrant out for your arrest
- Reported income that’s not yours
- Missing mail
- Your utilities are suddenly shut off
- Your ID is lost or stolen
- Unfamiliar bills or packages arrive at your home
- You can’t sign in to an account
- An account looks different when you log in
- Suspicious login attempts to your social media or other accounts
- Authentication messages for accounts you don’t recognize
- Emails alerting you of a data breach
- You receive a fraud alert
How to report possible scams:
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