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New Mexicans lost $18M to cybercriminals in 2019

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexicans are taking all sorts of measures to protect themselves these days – investing in private armed guards, expensive security systems and, of course, guns. But some, especially those in their golden years, may want to keep a keen eye on their cellphone and internet.

Federal authorities say residents in the state were bilked out of millions in internet scams last year with no signs of slowing. In fact, the losses more than doubled from 2018.

There were 2,037 victims and nearly $18 million in losses in 2019, according to a report by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3. In 2018, there were more victims – 2,127 – but only around $8.5 million in losses.

Most of those in 2019 came through extortion, defrauding businesses, internet purchases and romance scams. Individuals over 60, at least 24% of victims, took the lion’s share of the hits, a little more than $13.5 million, or roughly $27,000 per person.

“Criminals are getting so sophisticated,” Donna Gregory, chief of IC3, said in a news release. “It is getting harder and harder for victims to spot the red flags and tell real from fake.”

The results match a national trend, according to the release, as IC3 received a record-breaking 467,000 complaints and $3.5 billion in losses in 2019 – with states like California, Texas and New York getting hit the hardest.

In 2019, the FBI was able to recover $300,000 of $384,000 of losses in around 1,300 incidents nationwide. The FBI was not able to provide the Journal with numbers on arrests, solve rates or prosecution of cybercriminals.

Mark Medley, president of ID Theft Resolutions in Albuquerque, said a majority of the crimes go unpunished – and many even go unreported.

“It’s a huge amount,” he said. “They don’t know how to report it, first of all, and there’s some embarrassment involved. … When you have your information stolen, no matter how it’s done, it’s very intrusive.”

“Unfortunately, a large percent of the time, you don’t even know who it is,” he said.

In New Mexico, most residents were scammed through extortion and non-delivery or non-payment scams – where an online purchase is never shipped or a seller is never paid for a shipped purchase.

Personal data breaches, phishing and related scams, harassment or threats of violence, and confidence or romance fraud were also large contributors.

At least 176 victims did not specify a crime type in their complaint.

The largest losses in the state by far, $12 million, were incurred through Business Email Compromise and Email Account Compromise.

BEC and EAC scams target businesses and individuals performing money transfers by hacking legitimate email accounts and requesting wire transfers to fraudulent locations.

Bernalillo County fell victim last year after scammers used the county’s website to access business vendors and change accounting information to route nearly $450,000 into a bogus account in Texas. The county has since notified the FBI, thwarted two additional swindles and was working to recoup the loss.

Coming in a distant second were romance scams, or confidence fraud, which targets individuals and totaled $1.6 million in losses.

These scams involve predominantly older widowed or divorced women targeted by far-flung criminal groups who assume other identities to court the women over the internet with the eventual intent of asking for money.

Medley said the evolution of the internet and our reliance on it for everyday tasks such as shopping, banking and communication has opened the door to more opportunities for criminals.

“You can find out all sorts of information on people and that’s a sad reality we live in now,” he said. “If people try hard enough and long enough, they’re going to find information about other people.”

Medley goes to senior centers to talk to those most at risk who grew up in an era when people were “much more trusting and honest.” Some are more receptive than others.

He said some tips to protect yourself from cybercrime and identity theft are to keep a close eye on bank statements, scrutinize mail such as utility bills and when it comes to passwords – the more difficult, the better.

“You have to be very vigilant about what you do,” Medley said. “Keeping your information safe is a full-time job.”

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