The Billion-Dollar Deception: Navigating the Treacherous Waters of Online Impersonation Scams

Americans lost roughly $1.3 billion in 2023 to scammers pretending to be from the government or tech support, according to new FBI dataas Sam Sabin reports.

Why it matters: Record-breaking profits motivate fraudsters to double down on their schemes.

How it works: Scammers pretend to be a government official, tech support agent or customer service representative to trick people into sending money or other sensitive information their way.

  • These impersonators typically call with fake stories that would motivate someone to share their private identifiable details with them.
  • For example, a scammer might call to say someone will lose their Medicare benefits if they don’t pay a new fee. Or they might claim there’s a virus on their computer that requires the victim to buy a special tool.

By the numbers: U.S. adults’ losses from tech support and government impersonation scams have grown more than sevenfold since 2019, according to the FBI’s annual internet crime report, released last week.

  • In 2019, the FBI received 27,506 complaints of government and tech support impersonation scams, resulting in $178.3 million in losses.
  • By 2023, those losses had topped $1.3 billion from 51,750 reports.

The big picture: Impersonation scams have become easier due to the growing availability of generative AI tools and the popularity of remote work.

Between the lines: Impersonation scams have evolved from cold-calling telemarketing scams to online operations to lure people in.

The intrigue: People of all ages are susceptible to scams — not just the elderly.

  • Only 40% of people who fell for tech support scams reported to be over 60, according to the FBI.
  • Even New York Magazine’s personal finance columnist fell for a customer support scam where she put $50,000 into a shoebox and handed it to someone in an unmarked vehicle.

In A Nutshell . . 

 Be on high alert for impostors.

  • The government will never call, email, text or send a social media message to ask for money, the FTC says.
  • Be wary of anyone who calls randomly with a supposedly urgent financial need — especially if they ask you to buy a gift card or to transfer cryptocurrencies.