What are Phantom Hacker Scams?
The FBI has alerted the public to a recent nationwide increase in Phantom Hacker scams, which primarily impact senior citizens.1 Phantom Hacker scams have evolved from more general tech support scams. They operate by layering imposter tech support, government, and financial institution personas in a complex ruse to build trust that scammers can exploit for financial gain. The victims are often older citizens who lose entire banking, savings, retirement, or investment accounts under the premise that they are “protecting” their assets. Phantom Hacker scams are executed in the following stages:
Stage 1: Tech support imposter. In this stage, a scammer poses as a technical or customer service support representative from a legitimate company via email, text, phone call, or pop-up window, and instructs the victim to call a phone number for assistance. Once on the call, the scammer instructs the victim to download a software program giving them remote access to their computer. While pretending to run a virus scan, the scammer claims that the computer is at risk and the victim needs to open their financial accounts to look for unauthorized charges. At this point, the scammer determines which account is the most lucrative and tells the victim to expect a call later, with further instructions from the fraud department of the targeted account.
Stage 2: Financial institution imposter. In Stage 2, a scammer posing as a representative of the financial institution mentioned in Stage 1, such as a bank or a brokerage firm, contacts the victim. The scammer tells the victim that their computer and financial accounts have been accessed by a foreign hacker and the victim must move their money to a “safe” third-party account, such as an account with the Federal Reserve or another US Government agency. The victim is instructed to transfer money via a wire transfer, cash, or cryptocurrency, often directly to overseas recipients. The scammer may instruct the victim to send multiple transactions over a span of days or months, instructing the victim to not inform anyone of their actions or reasons for their actions.
Stage 3: US government imposter. In this final stage, the victim may also be contacted by a scammer posing as an employee at the Federal Reserve or another US Government agency. If the victim becomes suspicious of the government imposter, the scammer may send an email or a letter on what appears to be official US Government letterhead to legitimize the scam. The scammer continues to emphasize that the victim’s funds are “unsafe” and they must be moved to a new “alias” account in order to protect them.
Protect yourself from Phantom Hacker scams by following these tips:
- Do not click on unsolicited pop-ups, links sent via text messages, or email links or attachments.
- Do not contact the telephone number provided in pop-ups, texts, or email.
- Do not download software at the request of an unknown individual who contacted you.
- Do not allow an unknown individual who contacted you to have control of your computer.
- The US Government will never request you send money via wire transfer to foreign accounts, cryptocurrency, or gift/prepaid cards.
1 FBI, 2023, “’Phantom Hacker’ Scams Target Senior Citizens and Result in Victims Losing their Life Savings”