'Geek Squad' email scam targets vulnerable seniors

Ron Hurtibise, South Florida Sun Sentinel on

Published in Business News

They ordered her to go to specific stores — Best Buy, Walmart, Nordstrom Rack, Macy’s, Walgreens, CVS and Target — and buy $500 gift cards. Meanwhile, they remained on her phone, telling her not to stop until she amassed $10,000.

“They scared the crap out of me,” she said. “They threatened me, saying they know where I live. I went around like a maniac buying gift cards.”

A day later, with her $24,000 “debt” still unsettled, they ordered her to buy more gift cards. She maxed out her credit cards, then started paying with her debit card. They told her to go to her bank and withdraw $5,000 in cash and buy more gift cards.

Some store clerks became suspicious. “A woman from Nordstrom Rack followed me to me car and said, ‘There are so many scams going around. Are you all right?’ ” Afraid of the scammers, she summoned her community theater acting skills and convinced them she bought the card as a gift for her son.

Back at home, the scammers still had control of her computer. She discovered $10,000 had been withdrawn from one of her bank accounts. Then they demanded she wire another $10,000 to a bank in India.

Haunting ordeals

After three days of buying gift cards and wiring money, the woman estimates she lost $57,724. She struggles to understand how she allowed the scammers to overcome her better judgment.

They caught her in a stressful situation, she said. Her 89-year-old companion had just been released from the hospital with wounds from a fall and she was taking care of him.

“Bells went off in my head that something was wrong, but I did it anyway. I don’t understand it. I can’t explain it. They panicked me. They wouldn’t leave my computer and they kept calling my phone.”

Nine months later, she’s still haunted by the ordeal. While it didn’t wipe out her retirement savings, she lost about a year’s worth of income and now wonders whether the money she has left will support her through the rest of her life.

Looking at her collection of spent gift cards “makes me nauseous,” she said. “It plagues my every day and every night. I don’t sleep at night. It’s still so fresh in my mind.”

Scammers target older people in hopes of catching them in early stages of cognitive decline, researcher Tanner said. They know that many spend their days alone, with little more than their computers to connect them to the outside world.

When scammers contact them by phone and act friendly, “they’re happy to be talking to anyone at all.”


And seniors tend to be trusting and eager to help, reflecting the ethos of the era in which they grew up, Tanner said.

Seniors might be more likely to have Geek Squad or other technical support plans because they don’t want to burden children and grandchildren with requests for help, Tanner said. “Getting these service plans is a way to maintain their independence,” she said.

Seniors also are more likely to forget whether they purchased or renewed the technical support plan that an email claims was extended, she said.

Best Buy’s spokeswoman said the company has modified some of its gift card policies in response to scam reports.

Employees are trained to look for signs that gift card customers may be victims of a scam. Per-person limits on purchases have been reduced from $2,000 per gift card and $6,000 per day to $500 per card and $2,000 a day. Checkout terminals display warnings about gift card scams that customers must read before their purchase is finalized.

How to avoid being victimized

Experts offer these tips seniors should follow to avoid falling for a “Geek Squad” or similar scam:

—Don’t open attachments unless you are sure they’re from legitimate sources.

—If an email says that a credit card or bank account has been charged, log in to your account independently to verify whether the charge is actually there.

—Check the email for spelling and grammatical errors. Those are telling signs the email is fraudulent.

—Beware of emails and texts that ask you to “verify” personal information online. Most legitimate companies will never request personal information in this manner.

—If you receive a call or email asking for payment by gift card, know that it’s a scam. Report it to your local authorities, the state attorney general’s office and the Federal Trade Commission.

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