The latest online scam targeting seniors is almost too ingenious not to work. That’s what makes it so devious – and its victims so vulnerable.
Delray Beach, Fla., resident Diane Belz, 68, had no reason to be suspicious on March 1 when she opened an email claiming to be from Best Buy’s Geek Squad. She had opted for a Geek Squad technical support plan when she bought her MacBook in 2017. Like many other older adults venturing into the online universe, she didn’t know how to fix computer problems and wanted to be able to get help when necessary.
The email stated that her support plan had been extended for three years and her credit card charged $392.95. If she wanted to reverse the charge, she’d need to call the customer support number in the email within 24 hours.
Dialing that number was a decision Belz, who ultimately lost $1,800, and a unknowable number of other victims soon came to regret.
“Very few scams like this get reported,” said Ora Tanner, a researcher on the Aspen Tech Policy Hub’s recent project, Protecting Older Users Online. “And that’s because the senior is ashamed. They think, ‘How could I have allowed this to happen to me?’ They tend to hide it. That allows it to perpetuate.”
Another South Florida victim, from Boynton Beach, lost $52,724 to a Geek Squad scam. The 77-year-old asked not to be named for this story, saying she hasn’t told her children what happened to her. “They would have put me in an institution if they found out,” she said.
Known across the internet as the Geek Squad scam, it also comes disguised as other technical support plans, including Norton Anti Virus and other trusted brands. Scammers send out emails “phishing” for likely subscribers.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office received 10 complaints about Geek Squad phishing scams over 12 months ending March 2020. That’s up from three the previous year. Victim testimonials in Best Buy’s own technical support forums date back to 2019.
Business imposter fraud topped the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Sentinel Network’s tally of types of fraud against consumers ages 60 to 69 and 70 to 79 for the first time in the fourth quarter of 2020, knocking government imposters from the top spot. Reports of business imposter fraud by consumers in those age groups increased from 14,914 in 2016 to 44,114 in 2020. Consumers in those age groups reported losing $46.36 million to business imposter fraud last year, with the average victim losing $898.
Asked about the increase in reports of Geek Squad scams, a Best Buy spokeswoman provided this statement: “What happened to these customers is absolutely terrible and we have a team of security experts constantly working to do what we can to keep this from happening. Customers looking to use Geek Squad’s services can contact us directly at 1-888-BESTBUY.”
Seniors have long been targets
Online scams targeting seniors have existed for as long as seniors have been going online. Years ago, the Nigerian prince scam convinced victims that the senders were heirs to a ruler who needed someone in the United States to hold onto their fortunes – if victims sent money to prove they could be trusted.
Dating scams targeted lonely widows and widowers with promises of companionship but left them with lower bank balances.
Then came the pop-up technical support scams that locked up victims’ computers until they subscribed to virus cleaning or malware removal software they didn’t need.
The newest scams are descendants of those, but rely on victims’ familiarity with legitimate services.
The goal is the same: to gain control of victims’ computers and ultimately their money. And once money is transferred, there’s little any bank or law enforcement agency in the U.S. can do to help get it back.
When Belz received the email stating that $392.95 was charged to her credit card, she followed her first instinct. “I called and said I can’t to afford to renew for that much. I want to cancel.”
Next she received an email from the scammers saying they mistakenly refunded $4,900 to her credit card and she needed to call to arrange to return the overpayment. “I called them right back to find out how to reimburse them.”
She was told to download a program called Team Viewer and type in credentials that gave the scammers control of her computer. They quickly opened her web browser and found her bank account link saved among her favorites. When they accessed that website, her login credentials were already filled in.
All they had to do was click the login button. And they did, immediately accessing her account and withdrawing $1,000 via the instant money transfer app Zelle.
The Boynton Beach retiree also was directed to download software that gave the scammers access to her computer. Although the original email identified its source as Geek Squad, the scammers began identifying themselves as from Microsoft, for reasons she doesn’t remember.
Someone who said his name was Shawn Cooper told her she needed to log in to her bank account so “Microsoft” could refund her $499.99 in two installments – one for $240 and another for $260.
“I logged into my account and the procedure began,” she wrote in a complaint to the Florida Attorney General’s Office. “I was in my bank account and so was this other person from Microsoft. He asked me to enter $240 and our cursors were very close together [on the screen] and $24,000 was entered wrongfully into my checking account. The man from Microsoft started screaming ‘no, no, no’ and I tried to delete the zeroes and it wouldn’t allow me to do it.”
After the man hung up, she sat in front of her computer for an hour, “extremely nervous,” worrying about how to return $24,000 she was told was deposited by mistake. Later, a local detective told her the scammers likely showed her a false screen to convince her that the money had been transferred to her account.
About an hour later, “I called that same number back and said that I wanted Microsoft’s money out of my bank account and I just wanted my $499.99 refunded to me.”
‘They scared the crap out of me’
Unease with having money that didn’t belong to them set up both victims for the horror stories that followed.
At the other ends of their cellphones were slick-sounding men who said the only way they could make things right was to head out to retail stores and start buying gift cards.
Despite the $1,000 Zelle transfer, Belz was told she needed to send more money to return the overpayment and get her $392.95 back. She was told to go to Best Buy and purchase gift cards for $200 and $500, then go to Walmart and buy another $200 gift card. At the scammers’ direction, she scratched off the film that hid the cards’ PIN numbers and read the numbers over the phone – enabling them to instantly transfer the value of the gift cards to themselves.
Belz lost $1,900. But the Boynton Beach victim’s scammers weren’t about to be satisfied with such a small payday.
They ordered her to go to specific stores – Best Buy, Walmart, Nordstrom Rack, Macy’s, Walgreens, CVS and Target – and buy $500 gift cards. Meanwhile, they remained on her phone, telling her not to stop until she amassed $10,000.
“They scared the crap out of me,” she said. “They threatened me, saying they know where I live. I went around like a maniac buying gift cards.”
A day later, with her $24,000 “debt” still unsettled, they ordered her to buy more gift cards. She maxed out her credit cards, then started paying with her debit card. They told her to go to her bank and withdraw $5,000 in cash and buy more gift cards.
Some store clerks became suspicious. “A woman from Nordstrom Rack followed me to me car and said, ‘There are so many scams going around. Are you all right?’ ” Afraid of the scammers, she summoned her community theater acting skills and convinced them she bought the card as a gift for her son.
Back at home, the scammers still had control of her computer. She discovered $10,000 had been withdrawn from one of her bank accounts. Then they demanded she wire another $10,000 to a bank in India.
After three days of buying gift cards and wiring money, the woman estimates she lost $57,724. She struggles to understand how she allowed the scammers to overcome her better judgment.
They caught her in a stressful situation, she said. Her 89-year-old companion had just been released from the hospital with wounds from a fall and she was taking care of him.
“Bells went off in my head that something was wrong, but I did it anyway. I don’t understand it. I can’t explain it. They panicked me. They wouldn’t leave my computer and they kept calling my phone.”
Nine months later, she’s still haunted by the ordeal. While it didn’t wipe out her retirement savings, she lost about a year’s worth of income and now wonders whether the money she has left will support her through the rest of her life.
Looking at her collection of spent gift cards “makes me nauseous,” she said. “It plagues my every day and every night. I don’t sleep at night. It’s still so fresh in my mind.”
Scammers target older people in hopes of catching them in early stages of cognitive decline, researcher Tanner said. They know that many spend their days alone, with little more than their computers to connect them to the outside world.
When scammers contact them by phone and act friendly, “they’re happy to be talking to anyone at all.”
And seniors tend to be trusting and eager to help, reflecting the ethos of the era in which they grew up, Tanner said.
Seniors might be more likely to have Geek Squad or other technical support plans because they don’t want to burden children and grandchildren with requests for help, Tanner said. “Getting these service plans is a way to maintain their independence,” she said.
Seniors also are more likely to forget whether they purchased or renewed the technical support plan that an email claims was extended, she said.
Best Buy’s spokeswoman said the company has modified some of its gift card policies in response to scam reports.
Employees are trained to look for signs that gift card customers may be victims of a scam. Per-person limits on purchases have been reduced from $2,000 per gift card and $6,000 per day to $500 per card and $2,000 a day. Checkout terminals display warnings about gift card scams that customers must read before their purchase is finalized.
How to avoid being victimized
Experts offer these tips seniors should follow to avoid falling for a “Geek Squad” or similar scam:
- Don’t open attachments unless you are sure they’re from legitimate sources.
- If an email says that a credit card or bank account has been charged, log in to your account independently to verify whether the charge is actually there.
- Check the email for spelling and grammatical errors. Those are telling signs the email is fraudulent.
- Beware of emails and texts that ask you to “verify” personal information online. Most legitimate companies will never request personal information in this manner.
- If you receive a call or email asking for payment by gift card, know that it’s a scam. Report it to your local authorities, the state attorney general’s office and the Federal Trade Commission.