Immigrants May Be Targets for Cybercriminals: What You Need to Know
By: Jackson O'Brien
Immigrants face many unique challenges in American society. Despite being a country comprised primarily of the descendants of immigrants, persons arriving in the United States to start a new life often find that there are many barriers to their success. Some obstacles may be inherent in moving to a new country, but others often serve to marginalize immigrants from becoming a part of and contributing their experiences to American society. Unfortunately, this exclusion can make many immigrants targets for bad actors seeking to take advantage of their situation.
This is increasingly true in the area of cybercrime. It is a sad reality that the data of immigrants is often more exposed and that cybercriminals have developed a litany of scams specifically targeting vulnerable immigrant populations. Because immigrants often lack access to institutional resources and may be unfamiliar with legal processes, more and more individuals are falling victims to these scams every day. Cybercrime is on the rise, and it is important that immigrants know how to recognize a scam and what they can do to protect themselves.
Here, I recount a cybercriminal scam that was recently perpetrated against my good friend Joseph, an immigrant from Nigeria. Both Joseph and I felt it was necessary to share his story as a helpful illustration of the challenges immigrants face in the area of cybersecurity. It is our hope that others can use his experience to recognize similar scams that seek to exploit vulnerable immigrants. As a matter of equity and inclusion, it is important to highlight the societal injustices that make immigrants more vulnerable to these scams and to spread the word so that immigrants can be prepared. Our goal is to get people informed and stop cybercriminals from taking advantage of people like Joseph.
Joseph is easily one of the most likeable persons I have ever met. His warm, easygoing nature endears him to everyone he meets. He’s kind, smart, and always seems like he’s just a few seconds away from cracking a smile. Like many people, Joseph came to the United States to get an education. He ended up staying here and sending money back home to help support his mother and brother. Joseph became a lawful permanent resident after serving in the U.S. Army and, after an honorable discharge, began building his promising career. Just this year, Joseph also took another big step when he flew home to Nigeria and married a wonderful woman.
All seemed well, so I was particularly surprised when I received a frantic voicemail from Joseph at 4:33 PM on a Wednesday: “Hi Jack, this is Joseph. Umm… Just give me a call back whenever you can. Thank you.” He sounded stiff and worried, so I immediately called him back. For the next 12 minutes, Joseph rattled off a complex legal nightmare that had been sprung on him by a person who called him claiming to be a law enforcement officer. After Joseph finished explaining everything, I reassured him that the situation was clear to me. Joseph was being scammed by cybercriminals.
Here’s a rundown of the scam. While Joseph was back in Nigeria, he transferred money to a friend so that the friend could purchase wedding decorations. A group of cybercriminals somehow breached Joseph’s banking information, saw this transaction, and knew they could use it in their scam.
A scammer called Joseph claiming to be an officer with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. He knew Joseph’s name, address, and phone number and details about the money transferred to his friend. He gave Joseph a fake name, badge number, and case number and told Joseph that he was being criminally indicted in the International Criminal Court in New York City. He sent Joseph a fake indictment that falsely claimed his friend was a member of Boko Haram and that the money transfer constituted funding terrorism, money laundering, conspiracy, and other crimes. The scammer then told Joseph that he could hire a free lawyer to answer the charges for him.
Joseph called the free lawyer, who was also in on the scam. This scammer sent Joseph a fee contract which stated that Joseph had to pay $4,500 to the lawyer in “court fees.” When Joseph stated that he could not afford that amount, the fees were conveniently reduced to $1,500. The lawyer also linked Joseph to the website of a fake law firm in an effort to convince him that the indictment was real. Both of the scammers emphasized that Joseph’s court hearing was scheduled to occur in just three days in New York City, and that he had to act fast to avoid legal consequences.
Joseph was deeply scared by these communications. After all, they were accusing him of committing international crimes, and they seemed to know personal details about him. But even though Joseph doesn’t have a background in law, something seemed off to him. So that’s when he called me.
Here are a number of things that tipped me off right away that this was a scam to get Joseph to send money:
- Joseph was never served by a court employee with any formal paperwork. This was all sprung on him unexpectedly over the phone.
- The International Criminal Court is a criminal system reserved only for egregious international crimes like genocide, not small financial transactions.
- None of the normal legal processes were followed, and it seemed like the callers had little to no understanding of how the criminal process actually works.
- The request for money was obviously concerning. Further, the fact that they adjusted the fee showed that it was never legitimate.
- The scammers emphasized urgency, trying to get Joseph to act fast before he could think or contact someone for help.
- The indictment, fee agreement, and law firm website the scammers sent Joseph had numerous typos and were poorly formatted.
Just to be sure, I did some searching online. There was no officer with the Financial Crime Enforcement Network using the name given. There was no indictment with the International Criminal Court listing Joseph as a defendant or his friend. The building where the law firm claimed to be is real, but there was no law firm of that name in it. There is a real lawyer with the name the scammer used in New York, but it is obviously a different person. Further, the bar identification number used on the law firm website was fake.
Joseph was mostly relieved to hear that this was all a scam, although he was also upset that cybercriminals may have accessed his banking information. In light of all this, Joseph blocked the scammer’s phone numbers, changed his banking passwords, and contacted his bank to let them know about the potential breach. He also talked with his bank about setting up fraud alerts on his account. We also filed a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center called IC3 at https://www.ic3.gov/. Anyone can file a complaint, and it only takes a few minutes to complete.
It’s noteworthy too that the scammers continued to call Joseph from new phone numbers for several days after we handled everything, even leaving voicemails on his phone before they eventually gave up. Joseph also received voicemails from other, unrelated scammers who tried different variations of the same scheme. One even claimed to be with an unspecified fraud protection agency apparently trying to help Joseph avoid scammers.
Overall, Joseph made it out of this experience okay, but not everyone is as lucky.
Why Immigrants are Targeted
Cybercriminals recognize many of the inequitable factors that immigrants face and try to exploit them to their advantage. Here are a few examples.
- Involved in international communications: Many immigrants are forced to entrust their personal information to different governments and businesses in multiple countries. The fact that their information is more widespread makes it easier to obtain and more vulnerable to scams.
- Second language: For many immigrants, English is a second language. This may make it harder for immigrants to recognize the scam or spot issues that would be suspicious to a native speaker.
- Confusion about government processes: Immigrants may be less familiar with government processes and the legal system. Scammers take advantage of this by confusing victims about their rights. Further, many immigrants may not have contacts that can help them figure out what to do.
- Accustomed to dealing with government officials: Despite not being familiar with government or legal processes, many immigrants have been forced to handle burdensome government paperwork and costs through the immigrant process. This may make immigrants more likely to comply with someone purporting to be a government official.
- Lack of access to law enforcement: Immigrants often lack access to law enforcement any may be less likely to report a crime against them. Scammers abuse this marginalization.
- Vulnerable to threats: Immigrants are often more vulnerable to threats due to their immigration, financial, and/or familial circumstances. The fear of jeopardizing their new life in the United States may make immigrants more likely to believe that scams are real.
It is clear that many of these vulnerabilities are unique to immigrant populations. Unfortunately, the marginalization of many immigrant populations in American society has created these vulnerabilities, and cybercriminals have been more than willing to take advantage of them.
How to Spot a Scam
There are many key characteristics of internet-based scams that you should keep in mind. Not all of these characteristics will be present every time. However, if a few of the items in the list below are true, you may be the target of a cybercriminal scam.
- Unexpected contact: If the person is a contacting you unexpectedly and surprising you with alleged news about a legal proceeding, government action, financial transaction, or some other event, it may be a scam. You should be skeptical of any stranger sending you an unsolicited call, email, text, or other communication.
- Tries to build trust: A scammer may try to get your trust right away by claiming to be a law enforcement officer, court official, business representative, technology specialist, or someone else in a position of authority or expertise. They may even offer you fake information like a badge number or case number. A scammer might even attempt to pose as one of your family members or friends.
- Requires urgent action: Scammers may try to put you in an emotional state by asserting that you are in legal or financial trouble. Scammers then take advantage of that distress by stating that you can only avoid trouble by acting urgently. Scammers do this so that victims act before thinking about the situation or seeking help.
- Asks for money: This is a huge red flag. If anyone asks you to send money for any reason, you should be highly skeptical.
- Requests personal information: Scammers may ask you for personal information, such as your full name, address, social security number, or banking information. You should never provide personal information to a stranger. Scammers may already have some of your personal information from the internet and try to use it to convince you that they are legitimate.
- Fake documents: Scammers may send you a fake indictment, contract, invoice, or other document in an effort to convince you that the scam is real. They may even create an entirely fake website. You should avoid opening any attachments from strangers or clicking on links sent to you. However, if you have the document open, you should keep an eye out for typos or other incorrect information.
What You Can Do
If you believe that your personal information has been breached or that you are the target of a cybercriminal scam, you should consider taking the following steps.
- Cease contact with the scammers and block their communications.
- Change your passwords and security information.
- Contact your bank to report the suspicious activity and ask about setting up fraud and identity theft protections on your account.
- Report the scam to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center called IC3 at https://www.ic3.gov/ or another law enforcement agency.
Being targeted by a scam can be stressful but taking these steps will help protect your information and spot potential fraud. Overall, if you stay vigilante and protect your personal information, you should be able to avoid cybercriminal scams without issue.
Why This is Important
In addition to the contributions of native people, this country is built off the hard work and sacrifices of immigrants. Our society and culture are enriched by the deep and diverse tapestry of people that make up this nation. Yet too often we forget the unique struggles of immigrants and fail to highlight the issues they face. This is particularly true of cybersecurity threats, which are a growing problem for this vulnerable population.
It is important that we speak up and let people know what they can do to protect themselves against these threats. Immigrants should have the tools, information, and resources they need to build a new, secure life in the United States. I hope that this article can be one small part of that.