There was a popular Internet scam going around the Web about five years ago that preyed on middle-aged and older people in particular. The individuals would get an email or text from a panicked loved one — usually a child or grandchild — that had found themselves either robbed, under arrest, or roaming the streets in some foreign land and in need of their loved one’s funds. Occasionally the fraudsters would actually call the intended target, pretending to be law enforcement, with instructions on how they can pay someone’s bail over the phone or how to transfer money to them.
The fraud target was then instructed to wire money or offer up a credit card number, so that their loved one could return home.
That particular fraud attempt sort of petered out in popularity. There were apparently enough news stories covering the scam, helpfully alerting people that bail requests don’t typically come via text message, personal email or a 2 a.m. phone call.
However, in recent months a new variation on that old scam tried to pop up, but instead of looking for a credit card number or wire transfer, thieves requested payments via bitcoin.
We say *tried* to pop up because it failed. Why? Because the intended targets of the scam truthfully have no idea what bitcoin is.
Thus they failed to correctly panic and start giving out the information the hackers desired. Instead, the individuals wrote back to ask questions about bitcoin — or worse, according to Wired, they called up law enforcement to ask about it.
As it turns out, even for fraudsters, not every innovation is a good one. Though, admittedly, it is hard to feel too bad for these folks.
Still, the issue does point to an interesting and emerging trend in fraud — a sort of digital vs. analog trend, with some merchants and consumers more vulnerable to the latter than the former, and vice versa.
What does it mean, and why does it matter?
The Canary In A Coal Mine
“When we get a phone call from someone who is older, I would say the vast, vast majority of the times — 99 times out of 100 — and they are asking to talk to someone in our office about bitcoin, we know two things have happened,” a Massachusetts Sheriff told PYMNTS about the interesting challenges of digital fraud.
“We know their computer has probably been hijacked and they are looking at a pop-up window that is telling them that their computer has been hijacked and that they must pay a digital ransom in bitcoin. We also know they’ve probably been looking at porn.”
The old hijacking, he noted, was usually a fake, as someone would pretend to grab a person. The newest edition, he notes, is much more legitimate. With pretty basic malware, it is easy to lock someone out of their device. Moreover, the hijacking threats have recently been coming with a twist — the computer is locked and the pop-up window itself claims to be from the FBI, noting that child pornography has been discovered on the computer and that a fine will be required to regain use.
“Now of course five seconds of rational thought will alert folks that the FBI doesn’t communicate through pop-up windows, doesn’t allow you to pay to get out of trouble and certainly doesn’t take payments in bitcoin. But what we see a lot is smart people, knowledgeable people panic and start paying out before they think.”
And, he said, bitcoin is an especially effective way to permanently gift money to a criminal, since there is no way to reverse the charge.
Older victims, however, present an interesting opportunity.
“Older users may feel the same panic, but honestly, confusion over bitcoin usually breaks it. Also, and I don’t have any data on this but I’m thinking it is the case, people over a certain age are just less embarrassed by calling the Sheriff’s department and telling us they messed up their computer with pornography.”
Older people are still the victims of fraud depressingly often, but according to the Sheriff it was what the department calls analog fraud — insurance scams, burial plot swindles and the occasional phony lottery — which serve as effective methods, mostly because they are low tech, often person-to-person and non-threatening.
When those same people are the victims of digital fraud, however, they are often surprisingly helpful.
“We knew the ‘child-porn accusation’ hacks were becoming a problem because all of sudden we were getting call after call from older residents and some younger ones. And this has been a pattern over the last few years — a new digital fraud pattern will emerge and we’ll know we have to work on it because all of sudden we’ll see this big rise in cases affecting older people.”
This, he notes, has been a pattern that he and law enforcement nationwide have noticed. Whether it is Nigerian princes, tax scams or mobile payments scheming, older victims are often the first indication that something sneaky is out there.
“When things go wrong with tech, they call the cops. You’d be shocked how helpful that can be.”
Tech Support For Your Victims
The good news for law enforcement — and the bad news for cybercriminals — is that the rapidly evolving environment around moving money means that consumers are adopting new methods at uneven rates.
“Criminals aren’t lazy exactly. I’ve personally housed some very enterprising criminals in my jail, but I wouldn’t say they are great demographers; they are more sawed-off shotgun attackers. So mobile fraud — especially with stuff like digital currency which is untraceable and instant — sounds like a great idea.”
But only if your victim has any idea what you are talking about — or else it becomes a terrible investment of energy.
“No one wants to have to be the tech support line for the elderly person they are trying to defraud.”
The moral of the story? Next time you are considering getting all over your parents or grandparents that they need to join the mobile revolution, you might want to think twice. Were it not for our older generations who didn’t understand the concept of bitcoin, a lot of fraud attacks just might have been harder to spot.