Man loses life savings in elaborate scam, FBI says many in western Pennsylvania have fallen victim

PITTSBURGH — A local man contacted Channel 11 to report that he lost his life savings to a tech support scam, which investigators warn is now on the rise.

Shaler Township Police confirmed that a report was taken, with that resident claiming he lost more than $600,000. The victim ultimately declined an interview but detailed an extensive and savvy scheme that’s in line with what others are apparently reporting.

According to the victim, the fraudsters instructed him to download remote desktop software, which is a tactic the FBI is warning the community about.

Channel 11 contacted the FBI Pittsburgh Field Office, where Supervisory Special Agent Brooklynn Riordan told us that they’ve received roughly 300 reports of tech scams just this year alone. Reports comprise the Pittsburgh area and West Virginia, and in total, she estimates that $10 million has been stolen.

The majority of those cases, she said, involve remote desktop software.

In most cases, victims are contacted via email, telephone or a computer pop-up, claiming that their device or banking accounts have been compromised. The scammer will then provide contact information to resolve the issue, and will sometimes establish a relationship.

In the case of the Shaler man, he had frequent conversations with his scammer, who ultimately advised him to download “Ultraviewer.”

Riordan cannot confirm the existence of a specific investigation or provide details on a particular case, but she stated that, generally speaking, “Ultraviewer” is a common app that scammers will use in these schemes. The software itself isn’t fraudulent, but when downloaded at the direction of a scammer, they are then able to take control of your computer, tablet or smart phone, and access everything on it.

“They’ll tell you that they’re going to monitor your device,” she said. “They tell you that only they can help you, that you shouldn’t tell anyone about this, that you don’t know who you can and can’t trust.”

Riordan said that the scammers are sophisticated and work to build your trust.

“They’ll even make up code works for when they call you or you call them - a code word has to be used so you [think] you’re talking to a trusted individual. They’re very savvy.”

In the case of the Shaler man, he said that the scammer would provide frequent updates, comments like “so far we found 24 hackers, 25 folders, and 10 layers.” Sometimes, according to the FBI, phony documentation will be provided to make it seem like they’re making progress in protecting your account, while in reality, they’re stealing your money or instructing you on how to send it to them.

In these cases, recovering all or even some of the lost funds can be very difficult, according to Riordan. Recovery is even harder if the money has been sent via cryptocurrency, cashapps or gift cards.

“These investigations are very long-term, intensive investigations. They take years, and in terms of getting that money back, that’s generally not the resolution,” she said. “These are organized crime groups that exist here in this country, but they’re usually tied to people overseas... we have to engage with our law enforcement partners overseas and it’s a lot of coordinated effort.”

In some cases, she said that scammers work within call centers and perform this fraudulent work as full-time careers. It’s likely that there are far more victims than what’s reported, as people may feel hesitant or embarrassed to report their losses.

It’s critical that community members remain vigilant about suspicious online messages. Be leery of anyone who is soliciting your information.

“If you really do have an issue with your computer, you’re not going to get contacted by some tech agency to tell you that you have a problem,” Riordan said.

If you receive a message indicating your accounts may be compromised, call a legitimate number for your financial institution, not one that’s provided in a pop-up message. You can find a legitimate number on the back of your banking card, or you can visit a branch in-person.

If you end up providing passcodes or account information to a potential hacker, immediately contact law enforcement and your financial institution.

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