Internet scams on a drastic rise since COVID-19 pandemic, FBI exclusive

TYLER, Texas (KETK) — Internet scams are on the rise. Not only are they more frequent, the false calls are getting harder to identify.

A common scam that many are answering is calls about a car’s extended warranty. For many East Texans, this scenario happens several times a day. These scam calls have been around for decades, but they are getting more intricate now with the use of smartphones and social media. 

Mechele Mills, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau East Texas, shared her own experiences with scam callers.

“One of my friends got their social media messenger hacked and they kept wanting my phone number and my email address, like they’re asking me specifically,” Mills said. 

The CEO urges people to strongly protect all personal information, and explains that scammers often take advantage of victims by playing with their feelings.

“All scammers try to attack you using your emotions whether that’s a good emotion like ‘surprise you won a million dollars’ or ‘we’re coming after you because you owe us money and we’re gonna scare you,’” she said.

Her advice to others is to “be level-headed, think it through before you react.”

Scam calls affect people all over the world. Jeffery Pfeiffer, an FBI Supervisory Special Agent, says many of these swindlers call from third world countries.

“The biggest ones I’ve seen lately,” comments Pfeiffer, “are India, Nigeria. Nigeria’s been a big one for years.” 

To combat these calls, many people either ignore them or take part in scam baiting – answering the phone and wasting the criminal’s time. When East Texan Courtney Dykes receives a warranty call that is clearly a scam, she chooses the latter option. 

When she receives a call that is clearly a scam, the East Texan keeps the caller on the line while feeding into the questions.

“If it’s about a vehicle warranty, you know I’ll just mess with them and be like, ‘Which vehicle? I’ve got 120 in the front lot and 40 in the back lot’ and they just hang up.”

Dykes began scambaiting after multiple family members lost money to different phone scams. She believes wasting a scammer’s time by keeping them on the phone can prevent them from taking advantage of another victim. 

While this practice may be entertaining and helpful, it could also lead to your phone receiving fake calls more often. Jeffery Pfeiffer advises to ignore the ring. Once you answer a scam call or text, the special agent says your number is saved and added to a call list.

Exercising options like listing your name and number on a do-not-call list can be helpful, but it may not keep the scammers away. Mechele Mills says this will prevent legitimate business owners from calling, but scam artists ignore the list and hide behind fake numbers. 

The FBI says crooks look through lead lists to get your contact information. The lists have the names and phone numbers used for telemarketing, market research and debt collection. The backbone to many of these scams are rolls bought in bulk that are illegally sold on the black market.

Data shows a significant rise in scams throughout the past years. In 2017, around 25,000 phone text and email scams were reported. In 2021, that number jumped to 323,972.

“Anything that is trending, they’re going to jump on it because they know that you’re interested in it or you’re curious about it. What they want is for you to click on that so they can continue to lure you in and get what they want. And what they want is your financial information or your personal information or both.”

-Mechele Mills, CEO Better Business Bureau

Officials say the pandemic is partly to blame for this spike. It kept people at home with only their electronic devices to turn to as connection to the outside world. This situation has given scammers the perfect time to attack. 

A common scam topic – romance. The FBI sees many cases of victims losing their savings to romance scams. Though the elderly population is a prime victim to this, anyone can fall victim to a scam. Pfeiffer says once your money is gone, it’s nearly impossible to get back, especially from an overseas scammer.

Both the BBB East Texas and the FBI want you to remember to always verify before offering up any information to someone over email, text, phone or social media. If you or someone you know has fallen victim to a scam, there are many ways to report it.

Visit the BBB Scam Tracker (BBB Scam Tracker℠ | Find and Report a Scam | Better Business Bureau) or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center IC3 (Internet Crime Complaint Center(IC3) | File a Complaint)

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