After the loss of the family dog, Tana is determined to find a new canine companion for her husband who suffers from dementia. Hoping to surprise him for Christmas, Tana finds a breeder online and sends payment, but the puppy doesn’t arrive, and the breeders keep asking for more money for expenses. Hear how investigators from Google’s CyberCrime Investigation Group follow leads on these types of crimes every day, leading to international arrests and litigation.
[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:02] Tana Mundinger: Then they called and said, “If you don't pay this, we will file a lawsuit against you for puppy abandonment.
[00:00:10] Bob: Puppy abandonment, Oh my God. And meanwhile, all you want to get is a puppy for your husband, right?
[00:00:16] Tana Mundinger: Hmm-hm. Hmm-hm. I kept saying it to myself and you know, still willing to believe that everything was going to be okay. And then I, I finally put a call in to the police. And um, they said, "There is no such law as puppy abandonment."
[00:00:32] Bob: Hmm. So how did that feel?
[00:00:36] Tana Mundinger: It, uh, sunk, my heart just absolutely sunk.
[00:00:45] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Forgive me for getting personal for just a moment, but many of you know my dog, Rusty, who'd I'd mention from time to time in these podcasts. He sat at my feet for almost every interview you've heard, and once in a while, he'd figure out how to sneak into the recording. (Rusty talking) Well, after 11 years by my side, Rusty crossed over the rainbow bridge a few weeks ago, and the hole in my heart is, well if you know, you know. Now recently I met someone else who just lost their family dog, Max, and well the hole in their heart was much, much bigger as you'll understand in a moment. What a set of criminals did to this family at this fragile time is unimaginably cruel. Hold onto your hearts as you hear the story that Tana Mundinger is going to share with us. But hang in there because you're also going to hear just how beautifully kind strangers can be, and you're going to hear about a large tech company stepping up and making criminals pay. So one, a very sad story, but two, very happy endings. Now meet Tana who lives in a place with a great name, Mustang, Oklahoma.
[00:02:06] Bob: You and I actually have several things in common. The first is Oklahoma. So I lived in Stillwater for a while as a kid when my dad was going to school at OSU.
[00:002:16] Tana Mundinger: Okay. Well I lived in Perry, which is uh, about 20 minutes from Stillwater. I grew up in Perry, um-mm.
[00:02:21] Bob: Oh, okay. Well where is Mustang?
[00:02:24] Tana Mundinger: It's west of Oklahoma City, on I-40. If you keep driving west on I-40, you hit Mustang.
[00:02:31] Bob: And how long have you lived there?
[00:02:32] Tana Mundinger: We moved here about, in maybe 7 years ago when my husband was, you know, after he had been diagnosed with dementia, and my seeing that I was going to need assistance, because his daughter and her family lives here in Mustang.
[00:02:46] Bob: Family is very important to Tana. She's got a big one.
[00:02:50] Bob: You have 20 grandchildren.
[00:02:52] Tana Mundinger: Yes, uh, of course this was a second marriage. My husband has uh, 8 grandkids and I have 12.
[00:02:59] Bob: That's a lot of Christmas gifts.
[00:03:00] Tana Mundinger: That's a, that's a lot, hmm-mmm. A lot to keep up with.
[00:03:04] Bob: Tana and her husband have been married for 21 years.
[00:03:09] Bob: And how did you meet?
[00:03:11] Tana Mundinger: Through our church. I had known his kids through my son that was going to church there through youth group and in fact, I had met him one day at a real estate agent where I was looking for a different house, and I used to do taxes on the side, and he was talking about, you know, maybe my doing his taxes since he had retired and started out being a paint contractor. And that's when he was, you know, first married at that time. And so I did their taxes, and then later I had moved from Midwest City, that's where we were living at the time, and I had moved to Edmond. But he still had asked me to do his taxes, and he had gotten divorced, was divorced for several years, and he came over one evening to do his taxes, and then asked, you know, about going out for coffee or doing something and I said okay. We just started talking and seeing that we had a lot of things in common, and wound up getting married.
[00:04:04] Bob: And, and that's, that sounds very, it's a beautiful story, right. Your, your kids knew each other, that's very, very nice.
[00:04:10] Tana Mundinger: Hmm-mm.
[00:04:12] Bob: And it's great that once he was diagnosed as sick that you were able to move uh near his children, right?
[00:04:17] Tana Mundinger: Uh-huh, right, yeah, and his children have been really good. I mean he has the one daughter, and she sets up medical labs all around the United States, but she's able to take off and kind of stay with him while I'm going to California and, and they have really helped out on different times when I've needed time away. Like one time I had surgery and his daughter came down to stay with him while I was recouping from the surgery and helped me. So and his son has helped out a lot, and then of course the daughter in Mustang. So they've been very, very supportive.
[00:04:47] Bob: Also very, very supportive their amazing dog, little Max, who well, just showed up one day at the office more than a decade ago.
[00:04:58] Tana Mundinger: He was a lost and found. One of the uh property managers from the company that I worked for had come up to the office one day and said that she'd found this dog, and she really needed to find a home for him because she already had two dogs and three kids and said that she just didn't need another dog. And I said, well let me see. And so I picked him up, and my husband sang in the choir at that time, and he was at choir that night, and so when he came home, Max just went right to him. And he had never had a dog before. And he just took up so much with Max. And of course that's when he was doing the paint contracting. He would take him to work with him and take him for his trips, and then when he got dementia, they'd get lost together, (giggle). And they would sleep together. So he was just his very good companion.
[00:05:49] Bob: I've seen the video of them sleeping together. I mean it's, it's painfully cute. Oh my God.
[00:05:54] Tana Mundinger: Hmm-mm.
[00:05:56] Bob: So they were always together. How long did you have Max?
[00:05:59] Tana Mundinger: We had him for 14 years.
[00:06:02] Bob: Wow.
[00:06:03] Tana Mundinger: And he was, the vet thought he was like 2 or 3 when we found him, so he had to be 16, 17 years old. So he lived a long life.
[00:06:12] Bob: And tell... when did he pass away?
[00:06:15] Tana Mundinger: In September.
[00:06:16] Bob: This, this most recent September.
[00:06:18] Tana Mundinger: Hmm-mm.
[00:06:19] Bob: Um, and that must have been, I mean it's always painful, but it must have been especially painful for your husband.
[00:06:25] Tana Mundinger: It was.
[00:06:26] Bob: Tana had discussed with her husband long ago that they wouldn't get another dog, but the loss of his nap buddy just hit so hard, so hard it really seemed to be impacting his health. So Tana pretty quickly pivots away from that decision.
[00:06:44] Bob: It must have just broken your heart, not just to lose Max, but to also to see your husband missing Max so much, right?
[00:06:49] Tana Mundinger: Uh-huh, yes.
[00:06:50] Bob: So your idea watching your husband struggle was to get him another dog for Christmas, right?
[00:06:57] Tana Mundinger: Right. Uh, he had, before we had talked about not having another dog, and then with the, you know when it left a hole in your heart, you know he was like, well, I want, I want another dog. And so that's when I went to try to look for him, and it was going to be a surprise. I hadn't told him what I was doing, to look for a dog.
[00:07:20] Bob: I feel like you've done that to him before. (chuckles)
[00:07:22] Tana Mundinger: (chuckles)
[00:07:24] Bob: A dog just shows up at the house again. (laugh)
[00:07:25] Tana Mundinger: Yes. (chuckles)
[00:07:28] Bob: Remember, Max had literally just walked into their lives. It wouldn't be so easy this time, so Tana starts the process of trying to figure out how to get a new dog in time for the holidays.
[00:07:42] Tana Mundinger: Well that's when I had started researching. I had talked to my, my kids about their dogs, and what, you know, type of dog to find and so forth, and my daughter had a Maltipoo and so you know, it was a really good small dog for, for her. And my other daughter had a Goldendood--, a what is it?
[00:08:02] Bob: A Goldendoodle, yeah.
[00:08:03] Tana Mundinger: Goldenpoo, something like that.
[00:08:05] Bob: Yeah.
[00:08:06] Tana Mundinger: And it's a bigger dog. And so I was going to look for the smaller dog because, you know, that's what he liked is a smaller one that would sit by his side and in his chair.
[00:08:14] Bob: And so she does what we all do now when we look for anything.
[00:08:18] Tana Mundinger: Well I was looking online, and there were several things that came up, you know, from the city area and so forth, and then I clicked on the one.
[00:08:27] Bob: Do you remember anything about the ad? I mean were there a bunch of pictures of puppies? What did it look like?
[00:08:31] Tana Mundinger: Yeah, there was a bunch of pictures of puppies in it.
[00:08:33] Bob: Was there actually a specific puppy you had picked at that point?
[00:08:35] Tana Mundinger: Yes. It was a, a tan puppy. And the name was Sally. And I was going to, and because she was kind of tan and the way she looked, I was going to rename her to Muffin.
[00:08:46] Bob: It doesn't take long to fall in love with the idea of adopting Muffin. And Tana is thrilled when someone from the website calls her back and says that yes, she can have the dog by Christmas. So they start working out the details.
[00:09:02] Tana Mundinger: And so he sent me a contract. So everything looked legit with the contract, you know, saying that and so forth. But then, you know, he said to send a, a $300 deposit down, and then, you know, the $500 later, which the 500, the total was $650 plus $150 for shipping fee.
[00:09:25] Bob: To get the dog for her husband on time for the holidays, she has to act fast. Tana first tries to send the deposit via CashApp and Zelle, but that doesn't work for some reason. So...
[00:09:37] Tana Mundinger: And then he asked me to purchase American Express gift cards. You know, I did a 300 and a 500, and he said they didn't go through, again.
[00:09:47] Bob: She had to send pictures of the gift cards to the seller, but he said that wasn't working. He tells her to try again, go back to the store and buy two more gift cards.
[00:09:58] Tana Mundinger: I said, I don't know about sending you, you know, any more money." I mean I, I'm just acting very leery of this. And he says, "Oh, no, no, no. You've got to trust me. You know everything is okay." And I said, "Well, I'll tell you what. I'll send you $300," and if I don't get the puppy then I've only lost $300.
[00:10:16] Bob: This time he says the payment works, and so everything is in order. Muffin is on the way just in time.
[00:10:23] Tana Mundinger: Okay, then the puppy was supposed to be delivered on December 27th, and we had left for a trip at Christmastime to go to, to Branson, Missouri, and then go up to Kansas City, Missouri, where his son lived and other grandkids lived, and you know, spend Christmas. And then we, we came back home on the 26th and I received a text that said that oh, "Okay, the puppy's being shipped." They sent me a tracking number.
[00:10:54] Bob: So of course Tana secretly gets everything ready for Muffin, all the while trying not to ruin the surprise for her husband.
[00:11:02] Bob: You made the puppy a room, right?
[00:11:05] Tana Mundinger: Yes, I bought some things.
[00:11:07] Bob: Now like what did you, what did you buy?
[00:11:08] Tana Mundinger: I bought a dog bowl, some treats.
[00:11:12] Bob: And she waits by the door all day, but...
[00:11:15] Tana Mundinger: They said I should receive it by 5 o'clock that evening. And it didn't come.
[00:11:21] Bob: Instead, another message comes from the seller on the 27th.
[00:11:25] Tana Mundinger: I received a text saying okay, that they were holding the dog because they needed $750 for pet insurance. And they sent me things that looked like they were coming from government agencies, that this was a requirement that you had to have it all, and that this would be refunded to you when you received your pet.
[00:11:41] Bob: Assured that she'll be refunded, she sends the $750 via gift cards. But she goes online to check the balance of the cards and she's disturbed by what she sees. The value from the cards have been sent to numerous places.
[00:11:57] Tana Mundinger: Well, those cards went to a Ten Dollar Taxi place, $500 of it went there. And then the other one said Full Advances. And, you know, you would think that it was going to be put on hold or whatever.
[00:12:16] Bob: And then the next day, another request.
[00:12:19] Tana Mundinger: Then they called and said that they needed $500 for daycare because it was, you know, an extra day for them. I think I sent like one on the 28th and then another one on, yeah, $500 there. Yeah, I had to send them another 500 to replace that one that was canceled on the 28th, and then the $500 again on daycare on the 29th.
[00:12:45] Bob: Then still another request. She needs to send $1000 as a deposit towards a quarantine requirement, and then there's a 1,000 demand for a pet control department permit. And when she balks at that, they threaten her.
[00:13:01] Tana Mundinger: If you don't pay this, you will be, we will file a lawsuit against you for puppy abandonment.
[00:13:09] Bob: Puppy abandonment, Oh my God. And meanwhile, all you want to get is a puppy for your husband, right?
[00:13:14] Tana Mundinger: Hmm-hm. Hmm-hm.
[00:13:16] Bob: Every time a request comes, you still think, okay, I just do this one thing...
[00:13:21] Tana Mundinger: Hmm-hm. One more thing.
[00:13:21] Bob: ...the puppy's going to get here. Yeah.
[00:13:23] Bob: And then the one more thing becomes a request for her personal banking information. The puppy is one the way, but they need one more bit of information from her to process her refund.
[00:13:37] Tana Mundinger: And then they said, "We're getting the monies together right now, and you're going to get your puppy this evening, but we need your bank account information so we can wire it to you." And I said, "Oh no. We're not going there." Because if they have my routing number and my bank account number, they would be, you know, getting more money out of the account.
[00:13:59] Bob: That's enough to drive Tana over the edge.
[00:14:02] Tana Mundinger: I'm like this is, I, I kept saying it to myself that, you know, still willing to believe that everything was going to be okay. And then I, I finally put a call into the police. And um, they said, "There is no such law as puppy abandonment."
[00:14:18] Bob: Hmm. So how did that feel?
[00:14:20] Tana Mundinger: It, uh, sunk, my heart just absolutely sunk.
[00:14:25] Bob: But still, she holds onto one small sliver of hope and communicates with the seller once more.
[00:14:32] Tana Mundinger: So I said, "I'm not sending you anymore money. This is it." And the breeder kept texting back about, "Why are you so angry? You know, we, we were trying to work with you." And I said, "You've got $5850. I'm not sending you anymore money. "No, no-no. You just need to do this, and you'll have your puppy tonight, and, and we're getting all the refunds together." They were going to do it certified check and stuff, and I thought no, they'll come up with something else. I'm, I'm done.
[00:15:03] Bob: So she goes back to the police, and they also tell her bad news.
[00:15:09] Bob: So when you went to the police, did, what, did they try to help?
[00:15:11] Tana Mundinger: Not really. They took the, the case number, but all they could say, well first I had called California police where the address was from, from the contract that I had. And they said, "Well you're in Oklahoma, you have to call there." Then I called Oklahoma City, and they said, "Well, it, you know, came out of California. We could take this, but you know, nobody would," they didn't go anyplace other than to say, hey, you got scammed basically.
[00:15:38] Bob: Ah, I'm really sorry.
[00:15:40] Bob: Tana also contacts the Federal Trade Commission and any other agency she can think of, and then she calls the local TV station.
[00:15:49] Tana Mundinger: We KFOR here in Oklahoma City, that has "In Your Corner," and so I just reached out to them. I was embarrassed to do it, um, because I was embarrassed for people to see me if, you know, if they did interview me or whatever. Um, because you know I was ashamed, but I did reach out to them because I had seen some reports of puppy scams being so prevalent. And so I just contacted them and said, "Have you done anything on a puppy scam?" And I just kind of told them my story. And it was about a month later before they called and said that they wanted to interview me. You know, I just felt like that was something that was needed to be done, 'cause I'm, I'm usually very, very careful, but I was kind of like in an emotional state at that time because my husband is, you know, progressing more with his dementia, and I was really wanting to try to do something special for him.
[00:16:53] Bob: I can you, if the right person approached me right now in the frame of mind I'm in after losing Rusty, I would do something like this, too, so that's just how things work. That's how feelings work.
[00:17:01] Tana Mundinger: Hmm-hm.
[00:17:03] Bob: Um, but there's a happy ending, I understand.
[00:17:05] Bob: Yes, dear listener, I promised you two happy endings. Here's the first one. The TV show produced an overwhelming response. Viewers from all over Oklahoma called in.
[00:17:17] Tana Mundinger: Yes, uh, they got like 17 or more calls of people calling in, volunteering to give puppies away. And um, the lady that called uh, she called in first, she had a puppy that was like 18 months old, and um, you know small, and she, you know, would like to find, and she wants to gift it to you, and she would like to find a good home for it.
[00:17:41] Bob: So Tana goes out to meet Gracie.
[00:17:44] Tana Mundinger: And actually, they live out on a farm, and Gracie is a Shorkie, which is a mixture between a Shih tzu and a Yorkshire Terrier. And they're not really a farm dog. And so she just really, really just came right to me without any qualms whatsoever. And you know we carried her into the house, and I put her on my husband's lap, and, and uh, she just didn't act afraid or whatever.
[00:18:15] Bob: So how long have you had Gracie now?
[00:18:16] Tana Mundinger: We've had her for uh, almost a little, maybe a little over a month now.
[00:18:22] Bob: Hmm, and obviously they're, she's adjusting, everyone's adjusting?
[00:18:26] Tana Mundinger: She's, yeah, she's adjusting real well. And so they say it takes about three days for them to kind of calm down to their new place, but she just kind of, you know, adjusted to that real well. And they said it could be like three months before they feel like this is their home. I think she took over the home right away.
[00:18:43] Bob: (laugh) It's her home.
[00:18:47] Bob: You guys are just living there, but it's her home.
[00:18:50] Tana Mundinger: Uh-huh. (chuckles)
[00:18:52] Bob: And does she, does she take naps with your husband?
[00:18:54] Tana Mundinger: Yes, she's sleeping with him right now.
[00:18:57] Bob: Oh my God.
[00:18:58] Bob: The two of them bonded almost immediately.
[00:19:01] Tana Mundinger: She's a sweetie. She's very cuddly and everything, so yeah, he still calls her Max.
[00:19:06] Bob: That's okay. I'm sure she doesn't mind.
[00:19:08] Tana Mundinger: Hmm-hm. I said, "You know, well her name's Gracie Mae, so Gracie Max." (chuckles)
[00:19:13] Bob: (chuckles) Close enough.
[00:19:15] Tana Mundinger: Hmm-hm.
[00:19:17] Bob: Tana's story is so important because we all need to understand that real people are behind these scams. Stealing a few thousand dollars is one thing, but what happened to Tana and her husband is much, much worse. Well I promised you two happy endings, so here comes the second one. The good news is that word about the significance of these scams is reaching the right people. Last year after AARP reached out to Google when AARP heard about a different puppy scam victim, well Google took swift action using a novel approach.
[00:19:54] Henry Person: Hi, yeah, my name is Henry Person. I am an investigator on Goggle's Cyber Crime Investigation Group, or CCIG for short. Our team, we get to investigate fraud schemes, hacking schemes, basically we get to understand the kinds of bad stuff that are happening out there on the internet and figure out ways to make our users safer.
[00:20:15] Bob: Henry and his team have been looking into puppy scams since, well...
[00:20:20] Henry Person: Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen an uptick in puppy scams, probably because people turn to pets when they're isolated or uh need a companion. So this was already a priority for us. In late 2021, we received a tip from the AARP Fraud Watch Network about a puppy scam. According to the report, one of the uh AARP's members tried to purchase a basset hound puppy through a website. They paid $700 for the puppy, but ultimately they never got it. So we received that report, and that's when we started looking. And, as a matter of course, we review these leads, we try to understand the scale, we try to do something, even if it's just shutting down Google products that are being abused in these fraud schemes. In this specific case, however, we wanted to take things a little bit further.
[00:21:09] Bob: And when Google investigators took things a little bit further, well, they discovered something much bigger.
[00:21:17] Henry Person: When we were reviewing it, we found more reports of victims online, and we found more websites that appeared to be by the same individual. So this wasn't just a one-off scam, it was part of a larger network, and you know, frankly it's pretty cold-hearted. Uh, they were using these websites with cute puppy pictures and they were claiming to love dogs on the websites, but it was all fake, and it was all with the goal of peo--, stealing people's money.
[00:21:41] Bob: So Henry's team dug in trying to figure out who was behind this network establish attribution online, identifying the person behind the scam when a criminal is anonymous behind a keyboard maybe half a world away... well, it's a very tricky job.
[00:21:58] Henry Person: Well it generally works like this. We're investigators, so we pull on the threads and we chase down answers. Oftentimes this involves pivoting from an initial report to find new lines of questioning. So in this case, for example, we got a fraud report for a puppy scam involving a website. We could take a look at the fake website and ask ourselves, what's unique about this website? Where are they getting these pictures? Are they using a template? And from there we can develop signatures and see where they show up elsewhere. And this helps up build on an network. So bad actors, no matter who they are, are human. At the, and at the end of the day, humans tend to make mistakes, so as we investigate, we'll see where these bad actors slip up and reveal something about themselves, and we'll compile those details into a complete picture, and sometimes, as we've done in this case, to the actor's real identity which could be a social media profile or a full name.
[00:22:49] Bob: And do you remember or/and can you share the, the big break, if you will, in the case. Did he use his real name registering a website 8 years ago or something?
[00:22:58] Henry Person: Yeah, it was, it was along those lines. This individual um, they were generally using fake names and throwaway accounts, but in a few cases, they slipped up and used their full name, and that's how we were able to figure out who they were, and we managed to identify someone in Cameroon.
[00:23:15] Bob: So, they had a name. Nche Noel Ntse, and a location. Cameroon. But it's one thing to know who a criminal is, it's another thing to take legal action against someone who's outside the country.
[00:23:30] Henry Person: So that was definitely a challenge. We had evidence of a network of puppy scam websites, and we knew who was behind them, and the question was, what do we do with this information? We wanted to do something disrupt Noel's operations and protect our users, but they were located in Cameroon, which is out of reach of US law enforcement. And we ended up deciding to sue this individual.
[00:23:54] Bob: Google decided to sue an individual who lives in Cameroon. It was a novel approach, in fact, the first time Google had done anything like this. Ultimately, the firm told a US court in California, it had spent more than $75,000 to investigate and remediate Noel's scams and sued for financial damages citing harm to the company's relationship with its users and damage to its reputation. Google doesn't expect that Noel will ever pay up, but...
[00:24:25] Henry Person: Pursuing a lawsuit helped us achieve the following goals. First is disruption. So by winning a lawsuit, we can obtain a court order that we can use to shut down the scammer's websites. So normally as Google, we'd only be able to shut down Google services used by the scammer, like Gmail. But that court order lets us go beyond Google products to shut down the rest of the scammer's operations. So that's useful. The second piece of this is deterrence. We want to shed light on the actors behind these scams and we want to set a precedent and show that they cannot hide. So by suing this individual and naming them in the lawsuit, we create consequences for them no matter where they are in the world. And finally, one of our goals in this action was to raise awareness of these scams and doing a litigation, suing someone, helps do that because it's public and people can see it and talk about it. One of the things our team was thrilled about in this case, was that it was picked up by a variety of press outlets including the New York Times. And that was great for us because it meant that a wider audience was informed of the threat posed by these scams, and more people were protected through that education.
[00:25:33] Bob: Deterrence and education thanks to a federal lawsuit. This new approach is part of a larger strategy at Google says our next guest, also from Google.
[00:25:42] Erin Thackston: So my name is Erin Thackston, and I am a digital crimes investigator in the Cyber Crime Investigation Group at Google.
[00:25:50] Bob: So I think people might be surprised to know that Google has a Digital Crimes Investigation Unit. Tell us about it.
[00:25:59] Erin Thackston: Yes, I think that that is something that I frequently run into is folks don't realize, I honestly didn't realize it before I was applying and interviewing. And so we are a team that works with internal and external partners to investigate cybercrime activity that's threatening Google, and to protect our users. We work with the Abuse Teams that are for each product. So each product has its own Abuse Team, and we work between those Abuse Teams to kind of see cross product abuse and build a bigger picture. And ideally work on real world attribution so that actions like this puppy scam litigation can move forward and can take place against the people that are actually behind these accounts.
[00:26:36] Bob: Erin has been working in the investigations team for a long time.
[00:26:44] Erin Thackston: Before I was at Google, I was an investigator with the Secret Service, and worked in the Electronic Crimes Task Force over there which was how I started into the world of cybercrime investigations.
[00:26:57] Bob: So all, pretty much your whole professional life, right?
[00:27:01] Erin Thackston: That's correct.
[00:27:02] Bob: Why are you so passionate about this subject?
[00:27:06] Erin Thackston: I ... (sigh) ... so I went to college thinking I might be a therapist or a counselor. I knew I wanted to do something that helped people, and then realized maybe I don't quite have the temperament for sitting and listening that long. And I took a criminology course and just absolutely fell in love with it, and fell in love with the idea of this kind of protector role and helping to bring justice to those that are abusing the vulnerable, right. And one of the biggest and most biggest areas of abuse at this point, and the quickest growing when I was entering the field is the cybercrime realm of fraud and bad activity.
[00:27:47] Bob: I like that, the idea that you have this urge to be a protector.
[00:27:50] Erin Thackston: Absolutely. And I mean that's, that's probably the driving force of what, what brought me into this field.
[00:27:56] Bob: Google might seem like a strange leap from the US Secret Service, but maybe it's not a surprise to hear Google finds itself at the crossroads of a lot of criminal activity.
[00:28:07] Erin Thackston: So if you have heard of it being conducted as a cybercrime, there is a high likelihood that it is potentially touching Google's platforms, and that our team is taking a look at it and is on the lookout for it. Some of the biggest ones that we see, or most common ones that we see, are like fraud scams. So phishing, non-delivery scams like this puppy scam would fall into that, impersonation and romance scams kind of stuff. I've done a lot of work in the malware and botnet space. Uh, we also look at money laundering, potential account compromises, cases of harassment in some instances. So yeah, so it is, if it's a cybercrime that's out there that you've seen in report, there's a chance that we take a look at it. If it comes across our platform, we will in--, learn about it and investigate it.
[00:28:53] Bob: And, and just to put a fine point on what it means for coming across your platform, even if someone is committing a cryptocurrency crime, it's, it's quite likely they might, as part of their communications, use a, a Gmail address, right. So explain to me how these things end up intersection with Google products.
[00:29:11] Erin Thackston: Yeah, so one of the aspects of being a large and trusted brand like Google is, and of having a lot of free consumer products is that unfortunately we are also frequently used by bad actors. And so to protect our users and to protect the integrity, we have teams like mine and like the Product Abuse Teams that work to mitigate how much the bad actors can use our platforms, right.
[00:29:39] Bob: So forgive me, but this problem sounds so enormous. You're like the police force for the universe.
[00:29:44] Erin Thackston: (laughs) Um, we are, we're a force for Google. There's a lot more out there beyond just Google, and it is huge. And unfortunately like a lot of, there's a lot of cross industry abuse. So one of the other things we do and it makes the, this job maybe slightly less monumental is we have a lot of collaboration across industry where we have uh, good working relationships with researchers in the field, and with in--, investigative teams similar to ours at other companies that are also looking at this kind of abuse and activity on their platforms. So we're able to, to affect the ecosystem at large through those collaborations and partnerships, as well as with partnerships like AARP and the Fraud Watch Network, organizations like that that are receiving consumer complaints. Those then are able to come over to us and um, be action. But yeah, it, it is a really monumental task and it's only growing.
[00:30:44] Bob: Chasing criminals is much, much harder because it's easy to be anonymous online. And criminals thrive on that.
[00:30:52] Erin Thackston: Yes, so the anonymity factor of the internet can be a huge hurdle to come--, overcome, as well as a lot of the, the built-in privacy security that Google has within our services that are designed to protect our users, right. Those could be abused unfortunately. But we have some great resources and we've been, a lot of times the actors are very good at their, their operational security but they're, we've just got to look for that one slip up where they have an account that's tied to maybe a credit card that they actually use in their real name, or that is associated with a social media account that we can find through the open source searches that is actually in their real name, or something like that. And so that's one of the, the areas that my team is, specializes in is, is looking for those links and those kind of one-off mistake connections that they make that lead us to an account that isn't, maybe isn't a part of the actual scam accounts or their, um, criminal infrastructure, but leads to the actual identity of the individual.
[00:32:00] Bob: Believe it or not, one tool that Google's investigators use frequently, well you can use it too.
[00:32:06] Erin Thackston: Folks may be surprised, like how often you can just put in an email address that's being used in a scam into the search engine, and it'll come back with reports where other people are posting online, like this person did this, and so those kinds of public forum reports are really good for one, folks to use and look up and use it as an indicator when they're interacting with somebody that maybe they don't know. But it's great for us to help build that scale of impact as well and look at what exactly the individuals might be doing.
[00:32:34] Bob: Google can't investigate every crime lead, but it always tries to take some helpful steps.
[00:32:41] Erin Thackston: Once we decide that the, there is e-, enough impact that this would be a case that makes sense to put resources into, then we'll look at the ability to develop attribution. Do, does it look like they're using a lot of operational security? Are we seeing in kind of our initial triage process, like accounts that look like they're one-off or maybe, maybe linked back to an actual individual, and then the feasibility of actioning. Is this person located in a place that we may realistically be able to take some kind of action against? Is there the activity actually illegal, or against civil law so that, you know a, a legal action could be taken. Or is that something that is impactful enough that folks would care that it's worthwhile to put together a blog post to put information out there, even if it's not in a jurisdiction that maybe we could sue the individuals or pursue a criminal law enforcement referral. We can create blog posts that put out information that helps raise awareness in the industry as well as for consumers, and then reduces the effectiveness of the campaign that they are pursuing. If, for whatever reason, we decide we can't pursue a case against it, then we will do this initial triage process, see if it links out to other Google properties and Google accounts, and then we'll report to the appropriate Product Abuse Teams so that they can then action it. So like if it's a Gmail account that’s being reported, we'll take a look at it, and then send it over to the Gmail Abuse Team who will then action it based on Gmail policies.
[00:34:22] Bob: With all the billions of dollars Google spends building tools and hiring people to make their technology safer, the tech giant's biggest challenge tends to be, well honestly, the kinds of things we talk about every episode here at The Perfect Scam.
[00:34:38] Erin Thackston: I would say that probably the most frustrating scams and the ones that are the hardest, are going to be the hardest to mitigate overall, are the ones that involve--, involve that social touch aspect. So the, those scams like the puppy scams or like romance scams or government impersonation kind of things, because it's actual individuals reaching out to and talking to people, and they're highly skilled at social engineering. They know what phrases to use to get people worked up or to pull at their emotions and convince them that it's a good idea to send them money, or that maybe they have a real relationship with this individual and that kind of stuff. And those are just going to be the hardest to, to fight overall in kind of long-term because we're social animals, and you know, most of us are kind of programmed to trust and to connect with other people. And it's just, it's, to me, very insidious to have that taken advantage of with the purpose of robbing people. It's very heartbreaking and again, because there's, there's not a lot of technical aspect to it that we can fight on that, right. It's just that is going to be very much consumer awareness and education and just kind of getting people to become more cautious when they're talking to folks that they don't know online. And those, to me, are the scams that are the hardest to figure out, kind of like how to address and that has the biggest sticking point in them.
[00:36:17] Bob: Google has a helpful set of tools for consumers on its various websites. So I asked Erin to talk me through them. First, Google's Golden Rules which you can find on support.google.com if you search for information on scams.
[00:36:32] Erin Thackston: So the Golden Rules are to Slow It Down, Spot Check, and Stop, Don't Send, and those are the rules, 'cause these are, these are three things that consumers can very readily do to significantly decrease the likelihood of themselves being victimized by an online scammer. With the Slow It Down, so a lot of these scams, they create a sense of urgency, like I was saying earlier with the social engineering, they're very good at targeting your emotions and crafting a story that is going to make you think that you have to act right now or some negative thing is going to happen, or that some emergency is currently happening, that kind of deal. Take time to ask questions, think it through. Spot Check. So double-check the details you're getting. Does it line up with what you know to be from other sources, right, so does it make sense. When they tell you that they work for like X company and this is the phone number to call them at, or the phone number for it; when you do an online search for that company and go to their website, is that the phone number that's being provided. Or if they claim to be calling from your financial institution, when you go look at the back of your credit card or log into your bank account, is that the phone number that's provided? So just spot checking for the information that they're providing, making sure that it makes sense, and that it lines up with information that you already have from your prior life or that you're able to find readily from what you know are legitimate sources. And then Stop, Don't Send. No reputable person or agency or company is going to demand payment at that very moment. It's going to be, you know, a thing where you can discuss with them how to send payment, when to send payment, tell them that you're going to be calling them back, especially in this era, in this day and age when companies and agencies know that there's a lot of this scam out there. Like they'll appreciate you having caution, right. They're not going to demand that you pay right then, and they're definitely not going to demand that you pay in gift cards or in cryptocurrency. So yeah, those are just, they're the Golden Rules, kind of um, a good way to, to do just kind of like slow it down and, and get a reality check on a situation if you're potentially targeted by one of these cybercriminals.
[00:38:42] Bob: Google also has a suite of websites with simple tools you can use. Kind of like a quick safety checkup.
[00:38:49] Erin Thackston: If you have Google accounts; Gmail, YouTube page, Google Drive, any of that kind of stuff that you're using, there's the myaccount.google.com, which gives you an overview of your activity across your account. And my favorite things within there that are just the really easy stuff to do, even if you don't really want to go look at your whole history or anything, is the Security Checkup and the Privacy Checkup. So those are just quick little things that, you know, you click on doing a Security Checkup, and it runs through, I think it's just a few key points of the security on your account, like your password and having two-factor authentication on and that kind of stuff, and it gives you just a really quick, little summary of like, yep, you're good to go on this, good to go on this, this point can maybe be improved, and it gives you recommendations on how to improve it, like tweaks to make to your password or something like that. And there's also, separate from that, the Privacy Checkup, and so that just gives a quick little overview, kind of similar bullet point list of what privacy settings you have turned on or turned off, and gives recommendations that users can then choose to enable or choose not to enable. If they were built into the Chrome browser, there's the Google Password Manager, which can help with the advice that is given everywhere of use strong and unique passwords for every account, and managing those passwords, remembering all those passwords can be quite a challenge, right. So the Google Password Manager gives a safe place to store that data so that you can use multiple passwords and use really complex, complex passwords for all of your different accounts and have it saved in one central location that is easily accessible so that you're actually going to use the best practices. And then if users are looking for more information on our security products, then on the, the safety measures they can use within Google products, there's the safety.google page that they can go to, and that gives details and information about specific things within several different product arenas, and so that might be of interest if they're looking for more details or something that's a little bit more granular.
[00:40:58] Bob: Those checkup tools are really, really useful and, and easy to walk through, so that's a, a good way to spend the next 5 or 10 minutes.
[00:41:05] Erin Thackston: Yeah, it doesn't take long at all. That's great.
[00:41:08] Bob: Dealing with online crime, scams, it's a big problem getting bigger as we often tell you here at The Perfect Scam. It's an all-hands on deck problem from the largest tech companies to, well, you and me. The future of the internet depends on it.
[00:41:24] Bob: I do feel like scams give a lot of lip service and have for quite a long time. But I think people are starting to get a sense that, that facing this problem is pretty fundamental to our futures.
[00:41:36] Erin Thackston: Yeah, I mean, I, I would agree with that, absolutely, that fixing as best we can the problem of scams is fundamental to the future of continuing to operate with an open internet like we have, right, and being able to have providers like Google operate in a trusted manner, is to address this and to help move it off of our platforms and make sure that consumers are aware of that so that they aren't as readily targeted.
[00:42:06] Bob: And we like to think the Fraud Watch Network is a big help.
[00:42:10] Erin Thackston: Yeah, they've been great to work with and I'm pleased to see their work, and we've actually been partnering with the Fraud Watch Network as well to develop consumer awareness materials and get that distributed as a consumer resource. So it's something that we feel passionately about. I think they're doing great work.
[00:42:28] Bob: Remember, AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline is free and available to help you from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday at 877-908-3360.
[00:42:47] Bob: Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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