Americans were hit by an unprecedented rise in cybercrime in 2021, with nearly 850,000 reports to the FBI and losses surpassing $6.9 billion.
Older Americans bore the brunt of the financial hit, the FBI Internet Crime Report 2021 says.
Consider tech-support scams, which can start with a pop-up ad or warning on your computer. In these scams, criminals purport to have detected a problem with your device that they can fix — but there’s no glitch and they’re only after your money.
Overall, there were nearly 24,000 tech-support complaints to the FBI last year, and 60 percent of victims of this type of scam were age 60 or older.
Ransomware attacks on the rise
The FBI says the total number of reports was fueled by increases in ransomware attacks, business e-mail compromise schemes and criminal use of cryptocurrency. Overall reports jumped 7 percent from 2020.
Last year’s never-before-seen escalation in computer-enabled crimes and attacks struck not only average people but also an extensive array of business sectors, FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate says in the March 22 report.
Among key findings in the 2021 report:
- People ages 40 to 49 filed 89,184 reports to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, ic3.gov. Their losses rose to $1.19 billion.
- People ages 50 to 59 filed fewer reports, 74,460, but suffered larger losses, $1.26 billion.
- People age 60 and older filed 92,371 reports with even steeper losses, $1.68 billion. A caveat: That’s a larger demographic group, since it takes in people who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s and older, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison with the middle-aged adults.
The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center was created 22 years ago, in May 2000. Since its start it has fielded more than 6.5 million complaints.
Other report highlights:
- Business email compromise schemes, for the fourth consecutive year, had the largest dollar losses — more than $2.4 billion — among the various cybercrime categories. These scams target businesses, not individuals. For example, an entity might be asked to conduct a wire transfer of funds under a false pretense, with the loot flowing to a crook.
- Confidence scams — a category that takes in romance scams — accounted for the third-highest losses to victims. Overall reports of confidence scams numbered 24,299, with $956 million in victim losses.
- Cryptocurrency was a feature in 34,202 complaints. Worryingly, digital currency losses grew nearly sevenfold to $1.6 billion, from $246 million in 2020. The spike came even though complaints slipped to 34,202 in 2021 from 35,229 a year earlier.
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Abbate, the FBI’s No. 2 official, warns in the report’s introduction that the evolving cyber threat is becoming “increasingly intertwined with traditional foreign intelligence threats and emerging technologies.”
He and other officials stressed the importance of hearing from the public and business sector about computer-enabled crime, since such reports enable agents and analysts to “fill in the missing pieces with this valuable information during the investigatory process.”
“Not only does this reporting help to prevent additional crimes, it allows us to develop key insights on the ever-evolving trends and threats we face from malign cyber actors,” Abbate says in the report.
In the report, the FBI calls itself an intelligence-driven and threat-focused national security organization with intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities: “We are focused on protecting the American people from terrorism, espionage, cyberattacks and major criminal threats.”
One bright spot in a distressing report: The FBI’s Recovery Asset Team last year assisted in freezing over $328 million in funds for victims who were directed by criminals to make transfers to U.S. accounts under fraudulent pretenses.
Put simply, crime doesn’t always pay.
Large Entities Were Victims of Ransomware Attacks
Ransomware is a growing nuisance, the FBI says.
While individuals can be targeted, these are the top five infrastructure sectors hit in 2021: health care and public health; financial services; information technology; critical manufacturing; and government facilities.
4 steps to take now
The bureau urges these four “immediate actions” to protect against ransomware:
- Update your operating system and software.
- Implement user training and phishing exercises to raise awareness about the risks of suspicious links and attachments.
- If you use a remote desktop protocol, secure and monitor it.
- Make an official backup of your data.
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.