The FBI has issued a public warning regarding a notable uptick in ‘phantom hacker’ scams targeting elderly individuals across the United States.
Described as an evolution of standard tech support scams, the ‘Phantom Hacker’ scam involves impostors assuming the roles of tech support, financial institution representatives, and even government officials to gain the trust of victims and identify high-value accounts.
Victims, predominantly senior citizens, frequently fall prey to this scam, resulting in the loss of their entire banking, savings, retirement, or investment accounts, all under the guise of protecting their assets.
In these scams, multiple fraudsters pose as bank representatives, falsely claiming that the victims’ accounts are under threat from hackers. They employ various tactics to convince victims to grant access to their bank accounts, with the aim of assessing if the victims have substantial funds worth pursuing.
If the victim’s account balance appears lucrative, they receive instructions to await a call from their supposed bank, which is another scammer involved in the scheme. This second scammer advises the victims to transfer their funds to what is purported to be a ‘secure’ account controlled by the fraudsters.
In cases where victims resist manipulation, a third impostor contacts them, posing as a U.S. government representative, making a final attempt to persuade the victims to safeguard their finances by moving their funds to a so-called ‘safe’ account.
The FBI reports a significant surge in such scams, with 19,000 complaints related to tech support scams submitted to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) between January and June 2023. These complaints resulted in estimated victim losses exceeding $542 million.
Alarming statistics reveal that nearly half of the victims reported to IC3 were over the age of 60, accounting for 66% of the total losses. Notably, by August 2023, losses had already surpassed those recorded in 2022 by 40%.
To protect against such scams, the FBI advises vulnerable individuals to avoid engaging with unsolicited pop-ups, links sent via text messages, or email attachments. They should refrain from contacting any telephone number provided in such pop-ups, texts, or emails and avoid downloading software at the request of unfamiliar individuals.
The FBI also emphasizes that the U.S. government will never demand cryptocurrency, gift/prepaid cards, or money through wire transfers to foreign accounts.
Those who have fallen victim to these scams are urged to report incidents by filing a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). These complaints should include crucial details, such as the identity of the individual or company that initiated contact, the method of communication used, and the recipient’s name and address to which funds were sent.
In a prior advisory issued in November, law enforcement had cautioned about scammers impersonating financial institutions’ refund payment portals, targeting vulnerable individuals, especially among the elderly, capitalizing on their perceived vulnerability.