In a new report, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (pdf) says it received nearly 315,000 fraud complaints in 2011, with the bad guys making off with $485 million. (Known as IC3, the center is jointly run by the FBI and the nonprofit National White Collar Crime Center.) Analysis of victims' ages suggests that older people are particularly likely to fall for schemes in which the crooks claim to be government officials. Romance cons, too, were hard for older people to resist.
Here's the lowdown on the top five flimflams.
1. Work from home
Generating 17,352 complaints, the number one spot goes to an especially dangerous version of the work-from-home "opportunity." Through advertisements in newspapers, online job sites, emails and social networking sites, scammers recruit innocent job seekers as "mules" to unknowingly steal or launder money. They work at their computers, thinking they're a "money transfer agent" or a "payment processing agent" for a legitimate business, but in fact they're moving stolen money abroad and unwittingly disguising its true origins. The scammers may also compromise the victims' own accounts or identities.
Overall, victims lost $20 million total through identity theft and account tampering, averaging $1,160 per victim. "Regrettably, due to their participation, these individuals may face criminal charges" for check fraud and receiving and moving stolen goods, notes the report.
Losses to the 50-plus: $8.4 million
50-59: 1st in complaints, losses of $2.8 million
60-plus: 5th in complaints, losses of $2 million
50-59: 4th in complaints, losses of $2 million
60-plus: 5th in complaints, losses of $1.5 million
The most complaints were filed by those in their 20s, but people in their 50s lost the most money.
2. Government official impersonation
There were 14,350 complaints about emails that falsely claim to come from a government agency. Fast-growing are FBI fakers demanding money to prevent arrest, but the category also includes emails that seek money and personal information and purport to be from the IRS, Social Security Administration, Medicare or other agencies. In truth, government agencies do not send unsolicited emails. The total losses were $3.5 million, with a per-victim loss of $245.
Losses to the 50-plus: $2.2 million
50-59: 1st in complaints, losses of $328,000
60-plus: 2nd in complaints, losses of $1.1 million
50-59: 1st in complaints, losses of $501,000
60-plus: 4th in complaints, losses of $250,000
Over-60s lost the most money, $1.35 million, with those in their 50s in 2nd place at $829,000.
3. Loan intimidation
The subject of 9,968 complaints, loan intimidation scams usually come by phone, but sometimes email. Fraudsters claiming to be with law enforcement, a law firm or a government agency threaten arrest or legal action for a supposed delinquent loan. To make their ruse convincing, they often already have targets' personal information such as Social Security numbers and birth dates. The IC3 reports that many victims say they completed online applications for loans and credit cards before the calls began. Overall, these scams netted more than $8 million in 2011.
Losses to the 50-plus: $3.5 million
50-59: 4th in complaints, losses of $570,000
60-plus: 5th in complaints, losses of $1 million
50-59: 4th in complaints, losses of $970,000
60-plus: 5th in complaints, losses of $927,000
Among both genders, 30-somethings filed the most complaints and those 40 to 49 lost the most money, nearly $2 million.
Fueling 5,663 complaints, cyber-romance scams snagged not only hearts but $50.4 million from their victims. You know their MO: Once they woo targets met on dating websites and in chat rooms, they request wire transfers supposedly to help with a personal hardship, pay for an airline ticket for a meeting or meet some other heart-rending expense. The IC3 averaged 15 complaints a day, with per-victim losses of $8,900.
Losses to the 50-plus: $34.3 million
50-59: 2nd in complaints, losses of $3.6 million
60-plus: 5th in complaints, losses of $2.6 million
50-59: 1st in complaints, losses of $18.8 million
60-plus: 3rd in complaints, losses of $9.3 million
Women age 40 and older are the most targeted — and victimized.
5. Auto auctions
Generating 4,066 complaints, auto auction scams cost victims nearly $8.3 million. Crooks advertise a vehicle at a great price, claiming they must sell it quickly because they are moving, being deployed by the military or experiencing hard times. They request immediate full or partial payment through a third party, usually part of the scam ring. Of course, it turns out the vehicle doesn't exist or isn't theirs to sell. Sometimes scammers add credibility by posting photos stolen from legitimate auto auction websites. The per-victim loss averages about $2,000.
How the 50-plus fared: Losses of $2.6 million
50-59: 3rd place in complaints, losses of $1 million
60-plus: 5th in complaints, losses of $884,000
50-59: 4th in complaints, losses of $448,000
60-plus: 5th place tie with those under 20 in complaints, losses of $257,000
Those 40 to 49 of both genders lost the most, nearly $2.1 million. Women in their 20s and men in their 40s filed the most complaints.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.