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Scams rise as El Pasoans spend more time online during pandemic

EL PASO, Texas -- Nearly 800,000 complaints of suspected internet crime were reported in 2020, according to the FBI. That represents an increase of more than 300,000 complaints from 2019, and reported losses exceed $4.2 billion. The FBI tells ABC-7 these crimes happened in different sectors, many occurring on social media.

"One of the most popular social media accounts we see reports 116,00 hacks a day. It is very prominent, it is easy to do as far as cyber-hackers because they train and have developed very sophisticated techniques," said Jeanette Harper, an FBI Special Agent based in El Paso.

With more folks staying at home during the pandemic, more reports of hacking happened in 2020 - and even the social media giants are vulnerable to hacking. Just this year, Facebook fell victim to a massive data breach when a hacker released the information of more than 533 million Facebook users across 106 countries.

"Don't think that just because the giant social media company got hacked that it will never happen to me. Take it upon yourself to verify your account," Harper said.

These scams reach far and wide across the world including here in the Borderland. Abel Rodriguez, a blogger and internet radio personality thought he had scored $1,200 gift card from the financial institution 'Us Bank', but it turned out the be just the opposite.

“I can’t believe that I am calling myself a victim, but I was I was taken with false information and lies. That’s theft, that is theft,” said Rodriguez, who lost his stimulus payment to the scammers.

He was asked to buy a $150 gift card as part of the phony contest. The instructions were clear, scratch off the back of the gift card and send that information back to the bank. Unknown to Abel, he was sharing the gift card's private code to hackers. Already out the initial $150, the hackers convinced Abel to also send them his social security number. The excuse here was that the prize exceeded $600 and they would need to send him a tax form, so Rodriguez complied.

“That was the biggest mistake I made - I gave them my social security card. I was going through the steps blindly and not even thinking because I wanted the money,” Rodriguez said.

The hackers were not done. They then instructed Rodriguez to share his Facebook username and password, in order to authenticate his place in the $1,200 contest. Rodriguez, although having doubts, shared that information as well. That is when the hackers took over his Facebook page, posting as him and looking to recruit other victims.

"They used my mom's picture with my brother who passed away, trying to make a point about this being a legitimate deal," Rodriguez said.

The money never came and now the hackers were posting as Rodriguez looking to recruit other victims. At least one of his Facebook friends had fallen for the hack.

"This guy calls me up and told me 'This happened to me, was this you?' I told him 'man you got hacked', and he lost $200 and his Facebook page," Rodriguez explained.

The FBI refers to this as 'Island Hopping' - when hackers are able to post using your image, they are more likely to convince your friends to comply. The FBI cannot help you get your Facebook page back, but their main objective is to kill the chain of hackers.

“They are trying to use you to bounce on other individuals to try to continue these pyramid schemes. We understand that these accounts are very important to people, there’s a lot of memories - but for us the ultimate is to get the scammer on the other end," Harper said.

The FBI indicates the best way to prevent these type of hacks is to never disclose personal information such as user names and passwords online. It is important to note, no one should ever share their social security number with anyone online or via text. If you would like to report a cyber crime to the FBI, you can follow this link.

Article Topic Follows: ABC-7 Alert Center

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JC Navarrete

El Paso native JC Navarrete co-anchors ABC-7’s weekend newscasts and reports during the week.


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