Elders targeted by cyber crooks, but they can fight back


When Keniel Thomas got the nonagenarian on the phone, he may have thought he hit the jackpot.

But this was no normal 90-something-year-old. The intended mark was William Webster, the former director of the FBI and CIA.

The Jamaican scammer launched into the “lottery scam,” in which the crook tells the intended victim they have won a contest. To claim the prize, all the person must do is pay fees on the winnings.

Simultaneously, Webster began thinking of ways he could bring the crook to justice. He later released a video to alert elders to the dangers.

The lottery scam, along with similar schemes such as the grandparent scam, the romance scam, the tech support scam, and cryptocurrency scams, are just a few of the online frauds targeting the elderly.

According to the FBI’s 2022 Elder Fraud Report, over $3.1 billion was reported lost to scammers in 2022, representing an 84 percent increase in reported losses from 2021. That is only a fraction of actual losses. A 2016 survey by Stanford and the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, found “only 14 percent of victims reported incidents to local law enforcement or a federal or state reporting agency.”

SafeOC, Orange County’s award-winning public safety website, is constantly updated to keep internet users informed and ready in response to the growth in fraud and internet crime that threaten financial security.

SafeOC grew out of “If You See Something, Say Something,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) national anti-terrorism public awareness initiative. The site has expanded to include cybersecurity information, which is commonly used to fund domestic and international terrorist efforts.   

When the Jamaican scammer realized his intended victim wasn’t falling for the scam, he resorted to murder threats. He was later apprehended in New York and pleaded guilty to a list of crimes.

Call it in

Kristina Rose is the Director of the Department of Justice’s Office for the Victims of Crime. Among the projects she oversees is the National Elder Fraud Hotline, which was opened in 2020 with federal funding.

The hotline can be a one-stop source to report fraud, be connected to resources, and maybe recover losses.

“They have heard it all, believe me,” Rose says of the schemes reported to the hotline.

If you believe you have been victimized, experts say it is vital to contact law enforcement immediately. Many police departments have specialized fraud or online crime details.

A number of regional, state and national hotlines exist to help as well, such as the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), the largest for victims of all ages. The DOJ  National Elder Fraud Hotline, and AARP hotline are among resources tailored to the elderly. All will provide information and help get the ball rolling.

Rose said there are a number of reasons that scammers seek out elderly people.

“I think they are attractive targets,” Rose said. “They have savings accounts and good credit scores. That makes them more vulnerable.”

Like many, criminals “follow the money.” The FBI says that, while the number of fraud complaints dropped slightly in 2022, “monetary losses attributable to Investment Fraud reported by victims over 60 increased over 300 percent — more than any other kind of fraud — largely due to the rising trend of crypto-investment scams.”

Protect yourself

First off, be wary.

Delete solicitations from businesses you didn’t expect to hear from, especially via email. Phishing and related scams remain the most common schemes, with criminals posing as legitimate companies sending out fake emails and text messages.

Don’t give personal information or account numbers to anyone or vendor you don’t know.

Don’t react to threats or claims of authority. Anyone demanding payment immediately is likely a bad actor. You can always request that bills be sent via the post office. If a person uses threats or coercion to keep you on the phone, hang up. If they claim to be with law enforcement, make them prove it, and check up on them independently.

“No one should force you to pay or stay on the phone,” said Detective Sonny Lim of the Fraud and Economic Crimes Unit at the Santa Ana Police Department.

Practice good cyber hygiene

Invest in a respected antivirus and malware detection system. Many are commercially available and easy to download. These products can alert users if they are visiting unknown or suspicious sites. They can also scan the computer for malware, an umbrella term for various malicious forms of software such as viruses, trojans, worms, and spyware, which can not only affect computer performance, but extract data, such as passwords, user IDs and more.

Whenever possible, use two-factor authentication (2FA) or multi-factor IDs to add a layer of protection beyond the username and passwords. This is done in the form of a one-time security code sent to your device that you have to enter to continue.

As aggravating as it can be, computer users need to be vigilant about having different and strong passwords on every account they own, especially on personal email. A number of companies provide “vaults,” where passwords can easily be stored and retrieved.

It’s not your fault

If you are victimized, understand you are not alone. Even the smartest, savviest people have been victimized — even a former FBI director was targeted.

“The scammers are very good,” said Rose. “It’s not about being stupid or ignorant or any of those things. It’s the fault of the perpetrators.”

The FBI concurs, “Do not be ashamed about falling victim. The criminals enacting these schemes are highly sophisticated. They often work full time to gain trust and access to victims’ funds.”

“The first thing to know is it’s not your fault,” Rose said, “There are all kinds of people being scammed, you’re not alone and there’s help out there.”