Internet Scare for Highlands Couple

Threats and demands for passwords

The internet has at least one thing in common with a spider web: Both can be a trap.

A Philipstown couple learned that the hard way last month. 

The couple, who asked to be identified only with fictitious names because they fear being targeted again, are both in their late 70s. 

Fred was surfing the web on his iPhone when he clicked on an unfamiliar website and his phone froze. A window appeared with an 877 phone number and two options: call or cancel. 

“I clicked ‘cancel,’ because I knew nothing good was going to come from this, but nothing happened,” Fred said. He tried to turn his phone off, but it did not respond. “I had no control over anything,” Fred said.

So, he called. 

“A man with a foreign accent started berating me; he wanted my passwords,” Fred said. When the man asked for his phone number, Fred made one up. 

“He knew right away it wasn’t my number,” he said. “He had all kinds of information; he recited my Social Security number. I was scared.”

Reporter’s Notebook: How This Journalist Got Scammed

The man issued threats, telling Fred that if he didn’t get the information he wanted, “the Russians will be in your bank accounts before you know it.”

The man also knew June’s name and told Fred something bad would happen to her if he didn’t get the information he was demanding. 

Fred hung up. 

“I just didn’t know what to,” he said. “I felt sick to my stomach; it felt like this was serious.”

June was traumatized when Fred told her about the call. 

“I couldn’t sleep for four or five days; I’d wake up in the middle of the night,” she said. “You wonder what they have access to.” 

June said they have had their credit card compromised in the past but this was the first time they actually interacted with a hacker. 

After the call, they contacted their stockbroker, who assured them their accounts were safe. “He said no one can get a penny out of any of our accounts without talking personally to him,” said June. “We’ve known each other for 40 years.” 

Scam Encounters
and how to avoid getting taken

They also called their bank, which immediately put an alert on their accounts. “I asked the manager if this happens to people a lot,” June recalled. “She said it happens every day.”

Soon after the threatening call, a bogus $300 charge appeared on their credit card. The credit card company tagged it as suspicious and didn’t process it. A few years ago, a $5,000 or $6,000 charge had appeared for a diamond necklace; the credit card company caught that attempt right away, as well.

A few months ago, June was having trouble logging in to her credit card account when a chat window appeared with a man, saying he was from her bank. “He said if he could take over control of my computer he could fix the problem,” she said. 

She hesitated. “I almost did it,” she said. “But I thought, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’ ” She contacted her bank, who told her it had been an attempted scam. 

What Fred experienced is all too common. “The criminal was using a classic tactic: fear and intimidation to get their target into a heightened emotional state,” said Kathy Stokes, who directs fraud prevention programs at AARP. “Anytime you receive a communication of any sort — phone, email, text, online — and it causes a strong emotional reaction, disengage immediately.”  

AARP has a Fraud Watch Network at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork that provides advice, email alerts and emotional support for people who have been victimized. It also operates a weekday hotline at 877-908-3360.

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