CHEYENNE – When Margaret Pinney received a text message saying she’d won $100,000 for home improvement, she believed the content of the message to be true.
Only after sending the scammer $4,500 did Pinney realize what she had fallen for.
Like many others in Wyoming, she fell victim to a smishing scam, which is just like phishing scam, but over text. According to the FBI’s internet crime report, similar scams across the country cost victims $48 million in 2018.
“It put me on pins and needles,” Pinney said.
Cyber scams take on many forms, whether it’s a promise of investment, false lottery jackpots or government impersonation, and affect hundreds of thousands Americans each year. The crimes are difficult to prosecute because perpetrators often live overseas and use fake numbers that are hard to trace, and oftentimes, victims never get their money back.
“We just don’t have the resources to go after that,” Cheyenne Police Department Public Information Officer Kevin Malatesta said.
Many scams specifically target senior citizens because they are most likely to live alone and have good credit. According to the FBI, senior citizens are also less likely to report crimes. Last year, the amount lost to cyber scams by people age 50 and older in Wyoming more than doubled, from $1.46 million in 2017 to $3.42 million in 2018.
CyberWyoming Executive Director Laura Baker and Meals on Wheels of Cheyenne Executive Director Sharon Benson realized this was a problem for seniors in the community and decided to partner up to help spread awareness of cybercrime. Now, informative flyers from CyberWyoming are handed out weekly to those who receive Meals on Wheels deliveries.
“A lot of it is education,” Baker said.
The flyers cover everything from robocalls to what makes a good password. Because Meals on Wheels serves a large elderly population, Baker and Benson figured working together was a good way to spread useful information. Whenever CyberWyoming gets word of a scam going around, like the one that affected Pinney, they include that information in the flyers to prevent others from doing the same.
Baker advises anyone who receives a suspicious message to read it in a Russian accent. If it sounds suspicious, then it is probably a scam.
“Even if it’s from someone you know, question it,” Baker said.
Scammers sometimes use names or emails of bosses or friends to make their claims sound more legitimate. Pinney’s scammer even found and used the name of a childhood friend to make the scam more believable.
“It’s sad because they’re so convincing,” Baker said.
If you have a message you think might be a scam, Baker suggests consulting with someone in your life. She said people who live alone are more likely to go along with a scam because they have no one to discuss it with.
Shelley Polansky, CEO and president of the Better Business Bureau serving Northern Colorado and Wyoming, also recommends looking for misspellings and oddly worded phrases.
“Anybody who’s caught off guard can be the victim of a scam,” Polansky said.
In the past, scammers have widely asked for money to be sent by wire transfer. But recently, Polansky said gift card scams have been gaining popularity.
If you or someone you know has fallen victim to a scam, there are multiple agencies you can report it to. Polansky said the first thing to do is file a police report with your local law enforcement agency. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint and the FBI at https://www.ic3.gov/complaint.
The Better Business Bureau and CyberWyoming both have ways to report scams so they can get the word out to residents in the area. File your complaint with the BBB at www.bbb.org/scamtracker/us/reportscam or send an email describing the scam to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The biggest thing is for people to be aware of scams that are out there,” Malatesta said.