Seniors share con artists stories

LIHUE — An FBI agent spent two hours on Thursday afternoon teaching senior citizens how to protect themselves from cyber scams.

“Security and convenience do not go together,” Will Bales, supervising special agent for the FBI Honolulu Cyber Division, said during a seminar at the Kauai Community College that was attended by about 50 senior citizens hoping to learn how they could fight back against online fraudsters.

The AARP Fraud Watch Network “Protect Yourself from Cyber Scams” seminar was the first in a series of free meetings to be held across the state this month, educating seniors about how to avoid common online scams and provide information about the FBI’s role in providing cyber security.

One woman, Beverly — she was uncomfortable giving her last name — said part of the reason she came to the seminar was because she had been scammed in the past. In fact, it almost happened twice.

During the fallout from the recession following the housing market crash in 2008, Beverly said she started getting calls from attorneys offering to refinance her mortgage. She took one of the would-be lawyers up on the offer, hoping to get a better interest rate on her home loan, and when he asked for a deposit to cover his attorney’s fees, she sent over $900.

That payment was supposed to be the first of two. Beverly said she was told a second installment would be due after the refinancing paperwork was handled. She only realized the whole thing was a scam after some time had passed, no work had been done, and the “attorney” could not be contacted.

“I guess they were satisfied to at least get the $900 for nothing,” she said.

Later, Beverly nearly fell for a second scheme, when she answered a call from Jamaica early one morning and was informed by the caller that she had won $1 million and a new car.

All she had to do was name the color of the car and send a small fee via Moneygram and the prize would be hers. Beverly got out of bed and drove to the store to wire the money.

“They were nice enough at Walmart to say, ‘Auntie, I think this is a scam. Don’t send any money.’ So I was spared from that,” she said. “After that I got a little smarter.”

Beverly’s story is not unique. Senior citizens are particularly vulnerable to online fraud. The FBI’s website says elderly people are frequently targeted in cyber schemes because they were raised in an era when people were more trusting, often have savings and excellent credit, and may be too ashamed to report the crime after the scam is discovered.

A retired English teacher at Thursday’s meeting said she narrowly avoided falling prey to one of the most common schemes used by online fraudsters. Romance scams — also called confidence fraud — result in the highest amount of financial losses to victims when compared to other online crimes, according to the FBI’s website.

The scammer’s intention is to establish a relationship on an online dating website as quickly as possible, endear themselves to the victim, gain trust and eventually ask for money or valuables.

“You go on these websites, and they’re all engineers,” the retired teacher said, describing her experience with cyber dating. “They say you’re so adorable and they want to meet you.”

The former teacher said she started communicating with one person claiming to be a man from Honolulu. After they had been in touch for a while, she had to make a trip to Oahu and told the man she would be in the area, thinking they could meet in person. When he started making excuses for why he couldn’t see her, she began to get suspicious.

“He said he was in Honolulu. Then he was in New York. Then he was somewhere else,” she said. “Then he needed money for a passport. That’s when I knew.”

Looking back on the experience, the retired teacher said there were other warning signs that could have tipped her off sooner. The man’s grammar was terrible, as though English was not his native language, and he constantly tried to establish communication outside of the dating site, knowing the website managers would eventually catch on to his attempts to defraud their customers.

At the seminar, Bales talked about romance scams along with dozens of other schemes commonly-used by cyber predators who might pose as an old military buddy with an investment opportunity or a tech support employee calling from a legitimate internet service provider’s phone number. Scammers have developed methods to coerce internet users out of their money using a variety of schemes, Bales explained.

In the end, the best defense against even the most complicated and sophisticated fraud is relatively simple. Bales repeatedly emphasized the importance of being vigilant, using common sense and skepticism, and above all, using long, individual passwords for each separate online account and changing those passwords frequently.

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