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Elaborate scam involves gold bars and couriers; cost a Maryland woman $2 million

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 27, 2024

BALTIMORE — There’s a new scam circulating that’s costing Marylanders millions of dollars. It’s multi-layered with significant losses and the FBI is seeing it more often. And there’s a twist that makes it harder for law enforcement to stop.

This scam recently made headlines after a financial columnist came forward after losing $50,000.

“It sounds even crazy to describe it,” said Charlotte Cowles, a financial-advice columnist with "The Cut." Cowles recently told "Good Morning America" how a scammer convinced her to put her money in a shoe box and give it to a stranger.

“He knew my Social Security number, the last four digits, he knew my birthday. He knew my address. He knew that I lived with my husband and son. He told me that my identity had been stolen by a criminal organization,” Cowles recounted.

And the only way to clear her name and protect her funds was to follow instructions from a man claiming to be a CIA agent.

“Any person can fall for this scam. People that are younger, people that are older, educated, uneducated, no one's immune,” said Supervisory Special Agent Keith Custer with the FBI Baltimore field office.

The FBI recently put out an alert on what they’re calling the “Phantom Hacker” scam.

“They're getting hundreds of millions of dollars a year in these scams,” said Supervisory Special Agent Autumn Brown with the FBI Baltimore field office.

According to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), between May and December of 2023, victims reported losing more than $55 million in this scam. Of that, 7 people were from Maryland losing a combined $3.8 million.

“The bad guys can get as much as they can. And we've had one victim who's had a reported loss of over $2 million,” said SSA Custer.

The Maryland woman fell into this scheme through a computer pop-up message.

“Usually, a victim clicks a link on their computer, either in an email or in a malicious website and they’re informed they have some kind of virus,” Custer said.

They're given a number to call tech support and a representative tells them that their devices and financial accounts have been compromised.

“This is where we see another layer being added to the scam. The ‘financial fraud investigator,’ who in fact is the scammer, will then hand the victim off to a government impostor working for the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the Social Security Administration, even the FBI,” Custer explained.

The government impostor instructs the individual to go to their bank, withdraw large sums of cash, and to lie to the bank teller about what they need it for, in case they're in on the hack.

“We're even seeing victims being directed to purchase gold bars, or silver, or some other precious metal that they can obtain easily online, and then dropping this cash, or these precious metals to couriers that have been sent to pick up funds from the victims,” said Custer.

He added that gold is easier to trade, buy online, and harder to track.

"So the whole guise is to essentially protect your assets, when really you're just giving it all away?” WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii asked Custer.
“Right. They're preying on your worst fear that everything you've worked for your entire life, all of your retirement accounts, your savings accounts are in jeopardy,” he responded.

This fear and pressure to act quickly can be blinding, which keeps victims from seeing it's all made up.

“These guys are very good. They have call centers overseas, this is all they do. And they refine and improve how they do things,” said SSA Brown.

And the wrinkle making these agents jobs more challenging is the use of couriers.

“It's very difficult to trace unless we have video of maybe the vehicle or pictures of the drivers of the vehicles,” Brown said.

However, it's not impossible. A courier was recently arrested in the case involving the Maryland woman who lost $2 million. Unfortunately, her money has not yet been recovered.

Brown added that victims may be more fearful in these cases after having a courier come to their homes, however, they haven’t seen this scam turn violent, and they want anyone impacted to report these scams.

The sooner someone comes forward, the more likely the FBI or local police are able to assist with recovery of funds. Click here to report this scam to IC3.

It's also important to remember, the government will never request you purchase gold or other metals. No government official will ask you for cash, gift cards, or to wire money. And to have frequent conversations with your loved ones about these types of scams.

Victims aged 60 or over who need assistance with filing an IC3 complaint, can contact the DOJ Elder Justice Hotline, 1-833-FRAUD-11 (or 833-372-8311).