On the evening of June 9, a Charleston police officer responded to a call in West Ashley for a very different type of home invasion. Inside a quiet subdivision lined with well-manicured lawns and dotted with small ponds, the officer spoke with a woman who said she felt like she had been held hostage for the past five hours of her life. But the suspect in this case never once entered her home. All he needed was a phone and an internet connection.
According to an incident report filed with the Charleston Police Department, the 60-year-old victim received a call from a California area code around 1 p.m. that afternoon. She had recently had work done on her home computer, the report states, and the caller informed her that the new software that had been installed needed to be reevaluated. She was told whatever new program had been installed was not working, and the company would refund her payment back into her bank account. The woman reportedly questioned the caller regarding the refund process as she signed into her online bank account. It was at this point that she realized the camera on her computer had been activated, and she was no longer in control.
Later telling police that the man on the phone opened the Skype application on her computer and seized control of her bank account, the woman says she was told to go to her nearest bank and withdraw $3,000. According to the victim, the man on the phone told her, "I have access to your accounts. If you do not do this, I will withdraw all the money and empty your accounts."
The woman said she remained on the phone as she made the six-mile drive to the bank. After withdrawing the money, she was told to go to the nearest Wal-Mart, which was approximately five miles away, and purchase gift cards with the money she had withdrawn from her account.
At Wal-Mart, the woman purchased three gift cards, each for $1,000, before relaying the card numbers and PIN information to the stranger on the phone. With this task complete, it seemed like the woman would be let off the hook. But the caller demanded she go to another store.
Finally refusing to follow any more orders, the woman told the caller that she could no longer play his game. In the face of continued threats, she said she was needed at her job. The woman was left with the message that she would receive another call the next day.
Following the incident, the woman reportedly froze all her bank accounts, including her credit and debit cards. The officer told the woman not to answer any more calls from the California number that had contacted her, and the case was investigated as one of blackmail and extortion.
"We always tell people to continually monitor their credit report if they see a breach or something like that. That's usually the first thing you will notice and can then make any changes or fixes," says Detective Doug Galluccio, task force officer with Homeland Security Investigations and full-time investigator for the Charleston Police Department's Cyber Crimes Division. "We tell people who update any virus software, whatever they may have, to not reply to any strange email requests, even if it looks like someone they may know."
According to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center, this variation of fraud where a criminal contacts the victims and offers a refund for tech services previously rendered has increased. The agency's 2016 Internet Crime Report states that the Internet Crime Complaint Center received 10,850 tech support fraud complaints last year, with losses in excess of $7.8 million. Nationwide, almost 300,000 cyber crime complaints were reported in 2016, totalling more than $1.3 billion in losses.
Approximately 3,500 cyber crime complaints were reported by victims in South Carolina last year, according to the most recent Internet Crime Report. Combined, these individuals lost more than $10.8 million. By far the most common type of cyber crime affecting South Carolina residents is categorized as "non-payment/non-delivery," which the FBI defines as "Goods and services are shipped, and payment is never rendered (non-payment)" or "Payment is sent, and goods and services are never received (non-delivery)." A total of 938 non-payment/non-delivery cases were reported statewide in 2016, leading to more than $1.5 million in victim losses.
For cyber crimes like the one reported by the woman in West Ashley, 131 people across South Carolina fell victim to tech support fraud in 2016, and another 280 were victims of online extortion. The combined losses for these two categories was approximately $290,000. According to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, tech support fraud affects people of all ages, but older victims are often the most vulnerable. In South Carolina, victims over the age of 60 were subject to the greatest financial loss of any other age group. With more than $4.2 million in losses reported by victims ages 60 and older, this age group was subject to more than four times the amount of financial damage than victims in their 20s or 30s.
"These guys are going after people who are vulnerable. It's usually somebody who is older or in a vulnerable situation where they just don't know any better. Although not as bad as it used to be, we do still see cases of Craigslist ads and people sending money for rental properties and that type of thing. Those scams are still going on in the Folly area, but we're not seeing or hearing about that as much these days for whatever reason," says Galluccio. "Severing communications, possibly canceling email accounts if necessary — and I know that people don't want to do that, people don't want to change things — but those are quick fixes for people to save themselves."