By Jaya Padmanabhan
On a busy day last year, 61-year-old Neil (not his real name) got a call from a man who called himself “John” and said he was from Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL -0.09% Tech Support. He claimed to have received a report that Neil’s laptop was infected with a virus and offered to fix the security breach if Neil gave him remote access to his computer. Distracted by a dozen demands on his time, Neil agreed.
That was the beginning of a harrowing few hours with a practiced swindler. As John urgently warned that the virus threatened to corrupt and delete data and disrupt Neil’s life, Neil grew increasingly anxious and agreed to pay the man on the phone hundreds of dollars to fix the problem.
The virus, of course, did not exist and “John” did not work for Apple. Neil was the victim of internet fraud, specifically a “tech support” fraud that preys on older adults; a fraud that bilked almost 14,000 people out of nearly $240 million in 2021 alone.
Steep rise in online crime targeting older adults
As internet use has become more ubiquitous, the share of older adults adopting technology has markedly increased in the last decade. However, for many it’s like a learning a whole new language. Threats of viruses and malware, such as worms, trojans, bots and spyware, are profoundly confounding, and when a seemingly kind, disembodied voice on the phone offers to fix dreaded “infections,” it’s all too easy to succumb to false promises.
The FBI’s 2021 Elder Fraud Report , released on April 5, found that people 60 and older were victims of internet fraud more often and lost more money than any other age group during the pandemic. Overall, they lost close to $1.7 billion to all forms of online fraud in 2021— a 74% increase over 2020.
California had the most older-adult victims, followed by Florida, Texas and New York. Victim losses in these states exceeded $100 million each, with California reporting $430 million forfeited to frauds targeting older adults.
For people over the age of 60, the tech support scam was the most reported online fraud in 2021, having increased by 51% since 2019.
Tech support is the most prevalent online scam
One FTC analysis found that adults over 60 are six times more likely than younger people to lose money to a tech support scam. Particularly during the pandemic lockdown, this scam became widespread, with several of my own friends and acquaintances saying they had been approached or knew someone who was.
In 2021, 13,900 older adults reported falling for the tech support fraud. Not all older adults report losing money to fraud, either because they did not lose money or were embarrassed to have been duped, so what is reported is likely to be a fraction of the true picture.
“For most of us, it isn’t a question of if we will be approached by this scam, but when, ” Steve Baker, a retired director at Federal Trade Commission, wrote in a Next Avenue article in 2016.
How it unfolded for one victim
Once John got on Neil’s computer, he opened some utility programs and typed in commands that generated error messages. In an “ominously urgent tone,” John pointed to the messages as proof that someone had compromised the computer’s security, that the system was going to crash any minute, and, critically, there was grave danger that hackers would steal Neil’s identity.
John asked Neil to log in to his bank account and look at recent transactions, and despite being reasonably tech-savvy, and even careful about security, Neil complied.
According to Neil, John had “plausible explanations and a professional website to back up his story.”
John then said that he could kill the virus, remove the malware and clean the computer if Neil paid him in Target /zigman2/quotes/207799045/composite TGT +4.57% , Walmart /zigman2/quotes/207374728/composite WMT +5.11% or Best Buy /zigman2/quotes/205918291/composite BBY +4.45% gift cards. Neil got into his car and headed to the local store.
“I realized later that Apple Tech Support employees are never going to demand gift cards for services,” Neil told me. “But in that moment as John kept repeating that the virus was multiplying rapidly, I was panic-stricken.”
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The tech support scam script
It is no surprise that tech support scammers — not always from other countries — have a tried-and-true script.