Cybercrime’s Craziest Heists and How Not to Fall Victim

For the world’s most brazen cybercriminals, our gullibility is almost guaranteed. Here’s how to protect yourself.

Aliza Vigderman, Senior Editor, Industry Analyst

cybercrime

In 2017, Alex Blumberg got “phished.” He clicked on a bad link, and someone stole his login credentials.

At the time, Blumberg was the owner of the podcasting company Gimlet Media. He enlisted the help of two star Gimlet reporters to help him find the culprit.

The reporters, Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, devoted a whole episode of their podcast, Reply All, to Blumberg’s problem. They called the episode “What Kind of Idiot Gets Phished?” (Those were the exact words of Gimlet’s co-founder, Matt Lieberman, when he found out Blumberg had gotten duped.)

A few days later, as a test, the Reply All crew phished Liebermann right back. Lieberman — knee deep in an episode on phishing — fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.

Folks, anyone — and I mean anyone — can get duped online if they’re not paying attention, as we’ll see in these six insane tales of online deception every parent with kids ages 6 to 18 should study from start to finish.

Did You Know: Nearly 15,000 kids ages 19 and under fell victim to online fraud in 2021. The financial damage — which parents had to cover — totaled over $100 million.1

1. A Facebook House Call

It’s Better Call Saul meets Facebook Messenger. An old middle school friend DMs you out of the blue, and the next day they show up at your front door — with two loaded guns.

Jessica Otero Garcia was just trying to be friendly. Omar Vargas — not a friend at all, but an unhinged con man — was out for Garcia’s identity and whatever she had in the bank. His elaborate online fraud combined almost every type of internet swindle in the book2.

First, he catfished Jessica. Vargas pretended to be a classmate of Jessica’s whose identity he’d swiped. Then he got Jessica to donate $150 to a fake charity he said he ran.

For most grifters, that would have been enough — not for Garcia. After Jessica deposited the money via Cash App, Vargas pulled a classic phishing scam, pretending to be Facebook and asking for her email, phone number, and driver’s license number. Jessica fell for it. The next thing she knew, Garcia had locked her out of her FB account and was catfishing more “old friends” in her name.

Your teen won’t fall victim if you … warn them about scammers and predators early. Identity theft is rampant, and kids are more likely to have their identities swiped than adults. So teach them early and often.

FYI: Talking to kids about cyber stalkers and sleazeballs isn’t the only convo you need to have with your little ones. Here are six (more) mistakes you can’t afford to make with your kids’ first smartphones.

2. The X Factor: Criminals Edition

We all know stardom comes with a price. For Ty Harman (casting for Santa Clarita Diet) and Peter Pappas (Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory) that price was a fee they charged aspiring actors to attend special “casting workshops” they said would help them land Hollywood roles3.

The problem was, California passed a law in 2009 that put the kibosh on collecting upfront fees from wannabe performers, a.k.a. “pay to play fees.” It’s called the Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act4. Harman and Pappas are now facing jail time and fines, so I guess California is serious about protecting its actors.

Sad to say, Harman and Pappas weren’t alone. This single sting operation brought down 22 other high-profile Hollywood players who needed a little extra Tesla money. It’s enough to make you shout.

Or as Julie V. put it (complaining about a similar outfit on the Better Business Bureau website): “Scam! Scam! Scam! Do not give them your money! No website, no phone number, have to pay immediately or your [sic] out. Please protect yourself.”

Your teen won’t fall victim if you … stay clear of any talent agencies charging “pay to play” fees — whether your child is dreaming of the A list, the cover of Vogue, or center court at the U.S. Open.

Cyber Safety Tip: Phony promises aren’t the only thing we have to protect our young performers against. Identity theft is also a very real danger for star-struck children. The FTC is now investigating Nevada-based talent agency Explore Talent, for example, for illegally collecting and farming the data of 100,000 child clients5. Worried? Don’t be. Protect your family from identity theft.

3. A School of Catfish

If you’re looking for the best fried catfish in Columbus, Ohio, don’t head to Louie’s Grill. You’ll want to swim with a ring of romance scammers who conned multiple lovelorn victims around the country out of $1.3 million between 2016 and 2018.

One of their favorite MOs was to pose as soldiers. (They could bag up to $170,000 in financial aid that way.) In one case, a brazen romance scammer coerced a U.S. woman into a phony engagement — and a $50,000 payout.

Their chief fixer — the man with the bank account who managed the payouts — was 39-year-old Seth Nyamekye from Canal Winchester. Nyamekye is now looking at 20 years in the big house for money laundering and 170 years for a slew of other charges6. My guess is that when he gets out, at the ripe old age of 229, Mr. Nyamekye will be looking for a new line of work.

Your teen won’t fall victim if you … consider monitoring their online activity with parental controls. You don’t have to go all Big Brother on them. But definitely set up purchase permissions on the Google Play and Apple Stores. (You’ll probably want to set some screen time limits, too.) We’ve heard too many crazy stories about folks who didn’t take parental controls seriously not to recommend this.

Did You Know: Catfishing, or romance scamming, is a term that dates back to 2011. The original victim was a 24-year-old photographer named Nev Schulman. Schulman fell in love with an online identity he thought belonged to a real woman, but turned out to be the lurid fantasy of the internet’s first high-profile romance scammer. The rest is cyber heist history.

4. The Price Is … Wrong

Afolabi Ojo had a secret. Instead of studying, the enterprising undergraduate at Osun Polytechnic in Nigeria decided it would make more sense to pose as a woman named Kemisola and model women’s slippers and handbags on Instagram.

Nothing wrong with that — if Ojo had stuck to taking selfies of his tootsies. But, of course, he didn’t. He opened an online store — Best Classic Store — and slapped a price tag on his footwear. Except, instead of actually fulfilling his orders — like, say, Amazon — Ojo decided he would rather not send anything. He ghosted his customers, and that was that.
Until the federales nabbed him.

Weirdly, Ojo was one of 100 other undergraduate online shopping scammers arrested in the region. The total fraud is difficult to pin down, but $600,000 is a safe estimate.

Is your college-bound child secretly plotting to open up a bogus e-shop? I seriously doubt it. But they might be tempted by a crazily discounted iPhone posted on an Instagram showroom that sounds a little more legit than Best Classic Store.

Your teen won’t fall victim if you … review digital hygiene basics with them. Teach them about the evils of phishing and smishing (phishing via SMS). And make sure they understand that when a price is too good to be true, it almost always is.

FYI: Instagram isn’t the only social media platform where kids can run into fraudsters; TikTok is also a haven for scammers. Here are five tips we use to make TikTok safer for our tweens and tweens.

5. A Little Fake Plastic, Anyone?

I hate waiting for credit cards to come in the mail. Wouldn’t it be easier just to order a fake one?

Maybe not a business concept you’d pitch to the folks at Shark Tank. But it was Sean Roberson’s business in a nutshell. And boy was the 39-year-old Florida man doing business — to the tune of $34 million in online fraud.

See, back in 2011, when the web was still young, Roberson and two fellow fraudsters registered (registered!) the domain fakeplastic.net. Because, you know, no point in covering your tracks. Over a two-year crime spree, they managed to counterfeit over 69,000 credit cards and 30,000 holographic stickers for state IDs.

What kind of freeloaders would order fake plastic, you might be asking? The answer is “carding” crews that buy up our stolen credit card numbers and personally identifiable information (PII) after it’s been dumped onto the dark web. Usually, the thugs that dump it are hackers or skimmers that swipe it off ATMs and credit card readers.

Your teen won’t fall victim if you … never give your kids your credit card. I know it happens with the best of intentions. But when you look at the actual numbers — as the financial analysts at the Lending Tree did this year — nearly 1 in 2 parents reported mysterious credit card purchases their kids made without their knowledge7. And the sums weren’t negligible. We’re talking $500 on average.

Cyber Safety Tip: The most devastating thing about identity theft may be that we hardly ever know when it’s happened, so the fraud can go on for months, if not years. The best identity theft services for families take that risk factor out of the equation, sending us instant notifications at the time of fraud.

6. Debt Relief, Ponzi Style

You’d think that adults who had already been “duped” into paying so much for their education that they were still saddled with debt decades later would get a free pass from fraudsters.

Super grifters Jeremy Nelson, Elias Ponce, Christopher Harati, and Athena Maldonado don’t share this world view. All four once worked at reputable credit card debt collection agencies (which gave them a direct pipeline to their victims). Once they identified a mark, they’d pose as specialists from a bogus debt relief firm. Their shtick was to promise an attractive debt settlement in exchange for a monthly service fee8.

Except their cases never went to mediation, and those payments kept rolling into their coffers. Until the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rounded them up and put them in baggy orange suits. Nelson, the ringleader, now owes his clients $4,225,924 in damage (and seven years in the can).

Your teen won’t fall victim if you … do your homework before you help your kids fix their debt problems. Run a background check on any company you’re considering turning to for help. (You can do that at your state’s consumer protection agency9.) Run away from upfront fees, and always verify that a “brand-new government scheme” you’ve never heard of really exists.

Did You Know: Student loan debt relief scams are still running rampant in the U.S. Early this year, the FTC wrote 22,817 checks to victims of a debt-relief grift run by Student Debt Doctor, a phony outfit that had bilked students for more than $2 million in fraudulent fees10.

Final Thoughts

Grifters strike at our dreams and the insecurities that stop us from fulfilling them.

Afraid you’ll never find a partner? You’re the love of my life, says the grifter. Worried you’re not talented enough? You’re the next big hit, says the grifter. Convinced you can’t ever get out of debt? You can do it, says the grifter. I can help.

As the Gimlet podcasters found out, no one is completely immune to the wiles of a persistent fraudster. But that doesn’t mean we parents can’t make it awfully difficult for them.

Talking basic digital hygiene is a must. (Need some tips? Here’s our guide to protecting your children online.) Keeping tabs on their online activity is another step in the right direction.

Above all, remember, just like a snazzy new iPhone that costs 30 bucks, if a deal feels off, that’s probably because it is.

Citations

  1. FBI. (2021). Internet Crime Report.
    https://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2021_IC3Report.pdf
  2. WBDJ. (2022, Apr). Social media scam nearly turns violent.
    https://www.wdbj7.com/2022/04/22/social-media-scam-nearly-turns-violent/
  3. Variety. (2017, Feb). L.A. City Attorney Charges Five Casting Workshops in Alleged Talent Scam.
    https://variety.com/2017/biz/news/la-casting-workshops-charged-talent-scam-1201982958/
  4. Los Angeles Times. (2015). Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act.
    https://documents.latimes.com/krekorian-talent-scam-prevention-act/
  5. Clarion Ledger. (2018, Feb). Child talent search agency improperly collected info on kids, deceived customers: Feds.
    https://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2018/02/09/child-talent-search-agency-improperly-collected-info-kids-deceived-customers-feds/321048002/?utm
  6. NBC4. (2022, Jun). Romance scam: Ohio man got $1.3M from catfishing on dating websites.
    https://www.nbc4i.com/news/local-news/canal-winchester/romance-scam-ohio-man-got-1-3m-from-catfishing-on-dating-websites/
  7. LendingTree. (2022, Mar). 46% of Parents Say Their Child Used Their Credit or Debit Card Without Permission, Racking Up $500+.
    https://www.lendingtree.com/credit-cards/study/kids-and-credit-cards-survey/
  8. United States Department of Justice. (2016, Nov). Four Southland Residents Sentenced in Scheme to Defraud.
    https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/four-southland-residents-sentenced-scheme-defraud
  9. Usa.gov. State Consumer Protection Offices.
    https://www.usa.gov/state-consumer
  10. FTC. (2022, Jun). Federal Trade Commission Sends More than $2 Million to Students Harmed by Debt Relief Scam.
    https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2022/06/federal-trade-commission-sends-more-2-million-students-harmed-debt-relief-scam