International scammers are becoming more brazen by sending in-person couriers – also known as mules – to people’s homes in an attempt to trick victims out of their money.
In an alert this week, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center reported an uptick from May to December of 2023 in a scam, which instructs victims to liquidate their assets. Unsuspecting people are usually instructed to convert their assets to cash, or gold, silver and other precious metals, as a supposed safe way to protect their funds. The scam, often targeting senior citizens, has led to losses of over $55 million, the agency said.
What is new about this scam?
The escalation and change to in-person tactics for scammers, who usually “hide behind the veil of the Internet” or remote countries, is what is different about the latest scheme, said Chris Pierson, CEO of BlackCloak, an Orlando, Florida-based cybersecurity firm.
“This is a total changing of the play book” because the organized criminal syndicates and/or nation states “are actually burning a resource” as the last stage of the crime, Pierson told USA TODAY. They are no longer at arm’s length, he said.
“They are burning an individual that could be caught on video tape, the car, their license place, etc.,” he said.
Scammers have in the past had unsuspecting people answer ads for a job, who then became the mule or helped repackage stolen goods or gift cards in a scam, Pierson said.
But the latest methodology is different because in-person couriers are active players in the criminal activity, he said.
How does the courier scam work?
Various scams often have similarities, with the con men often posing as a person of authority to intimidate someone out of their money. In the latest scheme, scammers pose as tech support or U.S. government officials. They sometimes use a multi-layer approach, posing in succession as a tech company, a financial institution and a U.S. government official, the FBI center said.
The scammers inform victims that their financial accounts were hacked or at risk of being hacked, and their funds need to be protected. Criminals then instruct victims to liquidate their assets. Sometimes scammers instruct victims to wire funds to a metal dealer who will ship the precious metals to victims’ houses.
Scammers have victims hand over cash, precious metals
The next step, according to the FBI agency, is the scammers send couriers to retrieve the items at victims’ homes or public locations. Scammers may direct victims to authenticate the transaction with the courier using a passcode, such as the serial number of a U.S. dollar bill. Scammers tell victims they will safeguard the assets in a protected account, but in reality, the victims never hear back from the scammers and the victims lose all their money.
The outcome for victims of the scams hasn’t changed – people are usually out tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars they won’t get back, said Pierson. In many cases, the victims are handing the money over to people posing as government officials.
But the presence of local in-person criminals increases the chance that local and federal authorities can catch someone.
Pierson acknowledges that the couriers may be participating in the crime, but it’s also possible they are unwilling or coerced participants.
But catching the local in-person criminals can give authorities digital forensic evidence or “digital bread crumbs” on phones and computers “for a better chance of criminal prosecution” and ties to higher-ups in the crime ring, he said.
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Pierson said his company’s intelligence data has been tracking several Chinese or Chinese-oriented organized criminal syndicates or groups that have a connection to China, who are using physical people in the United States for their scams.
Pierson said he could not say whether the in-person couriers in the U.S. are of Chinese descent or if people of other nationalities are being hired or if there are other crime rings from other countries.
“We have been tracking involvement of Chinese criminal groups in these scams,” he said. “That’s not to say there haven’t been others that are emanating from your favorite cyber-crime countries.”
Tips to protect yourself
Here are tips from the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center:
- The U.S. Government and legitimate businesses will never request you purchase gold or other precious metals.
- Protect your personal information. Never disclose your home address or agree to meet with unknown individuals to deliver cash or precious metals.
- Do not click on unsolicited pop-ups on your computer, links sent via text messages, or email links and attachments.
- Do not contact unknown telephone numbers provided in pop-ups, texts, or emails.
- Do not download software at the request of unknown individuals who contact you.
- Do not allow unknown individuals access to your computer.
- The FBI requests victims report these fraudulent or suspicious activities to the FBI IC3 at www.ic3.gov as quickly as possible. Be sure to include as much transaction information as possible.
- Victims aged 60 or over who need assistance with filing an IC3 complaint, can contact the DOJ Elder Justice Hotline, 833-FRAUD-11 (or 833-372-8311)
Betty Lin-Fisher is a consumer reporter for USA TODAY. Reach her at blinfisher@USATODAY.com or follow her on X, Facebook or Instagram @blinfisher. Sign up for our free The Daily Money newsletter, which will include consumer news on Fridays,here.