The FBI is warning the public of an increase in “phantom hacker” scams nationwide that target senior citizens. 

Officials warned that this type of scam is an “evolution of more general tech support scams” that can consist of three steps. 

“[Scammers] layer imposter support, financial institution and government personas to enhance the trust victims place in the scammers and identify the most lucrative accounts to target,” an FBI news release said. “Victims often suffer the loss of entire banking, savings, retirement or investment accounts under the guise of ‘protecting’ their assets.” 

According to the FBI release, 19,000 complaints related to tech support scams were submitted to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center between January and June of 2023. 

The estimated victim losses totaled over $542 million, the FBI said. Almost half of the victims who reported crimes to the IC3 were over 60 years old. 

Scammers gain victims’ trust in the “phantom hacker” scam in three phases, according to the FBI: 

Phase One: Tech Support Imposter 

  • A scammer posing as a tech or customer support representative from a legitimate company contact the victim through a phone call, text, email or pop-up window on the victim’s computer and instructs them to call a number for “assistance.”  
  • Once the victim calls the number, the scammer directs the victim to download a software program which allows the scammer remote access to the victim’s computer. 
  • The scammer pretends to run a virus scan on the victim’s computer and falsely claims the computer has been or is at risk of being hacked. 
  • Next, victims are instructed to open their financial accounts to determine whether have been any unauthorized charges, which is a tactic used by scammers to choose which accounts to target. 
  • The scammer then tells the victim they will receive a call with further instructions from the fraud department of the respective financial institution hosting that account.

Phase Two: Financial Institution Imposter 

  • A scammer posing as a representative posing as a representative from the victim’s bank contacts the victim, falsely informing them that their computer and financial accounts have been accessed by a foreign hacker and the victim must move their money to a “safe third-party account,” such as a Federal Reserve account or an account with another U.S. Government agency. 
  • The financial institution imposter then directs the victim to transfer money via a wire transfer, cash or cryptocurrency directly to overseas recipients; scammers may instruct victims to send multiple transactions over a span of days or months. 
  • Victims are then instructed to not inform anyone of the real reason they are moving their money. 

Phase Three: U.S. Government Imposter  

  • Victims may also be contacted by a scammer posing as a Federal Reserve employee or another U.S. Government official who would try to verify themselves by sending a physical letter or email with what appears to be an official U.S. Government letterhead that attempts to “legitimize” the scam. 
  • Scammers then continue to emphasize that the victim’s funds are “unsafe” and that they must be moved to a new account for protection and will command that victims do so until they concede. 

The FBI recommends several steps victims can take to protect themselves from “phantom hacker” scams: 

  • Do not click on unsolicited pop-ups, links sent via text messages or email links or attachments. 
  • Do not contact the telephone number provided in a pop-up, text or email. 
  • Do not download software at the request of an unknown individual. 
  • Do not allow an unknown individual to have control of your computer.

Government agencies will never request money via wire transfer to foreign accounts, cryptocurrency or gift and prepaid cards, the FBI said. 

Victims can report fraudulent or suspicious activities to their local FBI field office and the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center with as much information as possible, such as the name of the person or company, methods of communication used and bank account numbers and recipient names.  

For more information from the FBI on technical and customer support fraud scams, click here.