FBI Tech Tuesday: Impersonation Scams

This week in the FBI’s Tech Tuesday Segment: building a digital defense against law enforcement impersonators.

Officers, deputies and agents join law enforcement agencies to help protect the people they serve and to bring a sense of justice to our communities. However, when a scam artist exploits that relationship, he can destroy a person’s trust in both law enforcement and government in general. These scams are easy and lucrative, and the results can be financially and emotionally devastating. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, U.S. victims reported impersonation crimes more than 12,000 times in 2016, resulting in more than $12 million in losses.

So how does it work? A fraudster calls, texts or e-mails you—pretending to be some kind of official from a local, state or federal agency. He tells you that you are in big legal trouble, and the only way out is for you to make a payment immediately. He will use social engineering tactics to stress you out in hopes of getting you to make a quick decision without thinking things through. Here are some examples of how this works:

Say someone contacts you tomorrow claiming to be from the FBI. The fraudster may say he is calling on behalf of the Director’s office or in the name of the local Special Agent in Charge. He may use the FBI seal or other graphics to make the communication look legit. He may even spoof—or copy—a local FBI phone number so it looks real. The caller will tell you that you are under investigation for some crime, but if you want to settle the matter immediately you can. If you don’t — then you could be arrested and anything you own will be confiscated.

A similar variation involves jury duty scams. In this case, the scam artist pretends to be from the U.S. Marshals service or county judge’s office. He says that you missed a recent summons to serve, and you now must pay a huge fine or risk jail.

So how do you know who is real and who is not? Know that no law enforcement officer is going to ask you to pay up or provide personal information over the phone, by e-mail or by text. Here are some ideas on what you can do if you are contacted by someone suspicious:

  • Don’t fall for high-pressure tactics. A legitimate officer or agent is not going to tell you that you have to pay “right this minute or else…”
  • Do not pay a government debt via pre-paid cards or wire transfers. Fraudsters will often ask for payment this way.
  • Ask to call the person back. Look up the number online yourself, and call to confirm whether the person is legitimate. We in the FBI get calls all the time from community members who say they are just checking back to see if a person who identified himself as an FBI agent is real. Oftentimes, they are not. We would much prefer you call to check before giving away money than after.
  • Do not give anyone financial or personal information unless you initiate the contact and are 100% confident about with whom you are talking. This includes your bank account, credit card and social security numbers.

If you have been victimized by this scam or any other online scam, contact the FBI. You can file an online report at the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov or call your FBI local office.

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