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How Cybercriminals Stole $1.8 Billion from Unsuspecting Older Americans in 2020

FBI blames last year's scam surge on technology dependence during pandemic

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En español | Cybercrime complaints soared to a record high last year, when total losses surpassed $4.2 billion and losses to those 50 and older exceeded $1.8 billion, according to FBI data for 2020.

The nearly 792,000 in overall reports from all ages was a 69 percent jump from 2019. The increase was blamed on crooks who exploited the COVID-19 pandemic for financial gain. “In 2020, while the American public was focused on protecting our families from a global pandemic and helping others in need, cybercriminals took advantage of the opportunity to profit from our dependence on technology to go on an internet crime spree,” said the FBI's Paul Abbate, a 25-year veteran who is the bureau's deputy director, its second-highest official.

Cybercrime victims in their 50s had highest average loss last year

A record number of complaints to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center were made in 2020, the year the pandemic erupted.

Total complaints numbered nearly 792,000. Complainants were not required to state their ages, but more than 465,000 of them did. Here’s a look at their age ranges and total and average losses:

chart showing twenty twenty cyberfraud victims by age and dollars lost

AARP

Older victims hit hardest

Americans age 50 and older suffered a major blow from cybercrime last year, according to the FBI 2020 Internet Crime Report. While not all complainants revealed their age, here are some key statistics that emerged among those who did.

  • The more than $1.8 billion in cyberfraud losses reported by men and women ages 50-plus represents a 27 percent hike from a year earlier.

  • This group filed 191,268 cybercrime complaints in 2020, for a 61 percent year-over-year increase.

  • The average dollar loss in this group was $9,484, 21 percent decrease from 2019, when the mean was $12,011.

  • Reports of cybercrimes involve both individual consumer and businesses losses. Losses from business email compromise (BEC) schemes continued to be the costliest kind of scam in 2020; there were 19,369 complaints, with total losses of approximately $1.8 billion. A BEC is a sophisticated scam carried out by criminals who compromise email accounts to conduct an unauthorized transfer of funds.

  • Generally speaking, older victims are “targeted by perpetrators because they are believed to have significant financial resources.”

  • Tech-support frauds were a particular bane to victims age 60 and older. These schemes see criminals defraud others by posing as technicians who will resolve an issue such as a compromised bank account or a computer virus. At least two-thirds of tech-support victims, who overall filed 15,421 complaints last year, were 60-plus. And they lost many millions of dollars.

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Criminals deploy everything but the kitchen sink

Paul Abbate, Deputy Director, FBI

FBI

Paul Abbate, Deputy Director, FBI

Cybercriminals run the gamut. They may pose as fake “grandchildren” with phony emergencies who hit up real grandparents for cash. Or online Romeos or Juliets who promise love and marriage but want to get their hands on one thing: your money. Or e-commerce outlets that advertise having personal protective equipment for sale and accept payments, but never deliver.

With the COVID pandemic permeating all parts of life last year, fraudsters committed crimes tied to federal COVID-19 relief funds, grants and loans; enhanced unemployment benefits; and the purported online sale of scarce goods. They also cajoled victims into handing over personally identifiable information to commit identity theft.

Take tips from the FBI

To prevent such crimes, the FBI offers these key tips.

  • Use extreme caution in online communication. Verify the sender of an email. Criminals sometimes will change just one letter in an email address to make it look like one you know. Be very wary of attachments or links. Hover your mouse over a link before clicking, to see where it's sending you.

  • Question anyone offering you something that seems too good to be true. This guidance also pertains to purported medical advice and so-called secret investment opportunities.

  • Rely on trusted sources for information. For medical information, turn to your own doctor, your health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For consumer protection information, turn to the Federal Trade Commission; for tax information, try the Internal Revenue Service.

Data in the annual report arises from complaints to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center. With an increase in both the number and impact of elder fraud cases, the FBI in the future plans to release its first annual report focusing entirely on 2021 elder fraud cases.

Common Elder Scams to Beware Of

The FBI says bad actors target older Americans because it’s believed these prospective victims have significant financial resources. If the crooks are successful after they initially contact victims, “they will often continue to victimize these individuals,” the bureau says. It warns people age 60 and over in particular to avoid these 10 common scams.

1. Advance fee schemes

2. Investment fraud

3. Romance scams

4. Tech-support scams

5. Grandparent scams

6. Government impersonation scams

7. Sweepstakes/lottery scams / charity scams

8. Home repair scams

9. TV/radio scams

10. Family/caregiver scams

Source: FBI

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report and the Milwaukee Journal. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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