EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Almost half a million Americans fell prey to internet scams last year, losing $3.5 billion in the process, the FBI reported on Tuesday.

The most frequent complaints involved fraudulent emails (phishing), payment and delivery scams and extortion. The most costly scams were associated with a business email being hijacked, romance fraud and spoofing — sending information to a phony account that mimics that of a real person or company.

These trends are documented in the 2019 Internet Crimes Report put out by IC3, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. The agency says this past calendar year saw the highest number of complaints and the highest dollar losses recorded since the center was established in May 2000.

More than 30,000 California residents or businesses experienced internet fraud last year, leading the nation in complaints. New York, Texas and Florida followed with more than 20,000 complaints each, according to the report.

California residents were hardest hit by e-scams last year, followed by Texas, Florida and New York. (graphic courtesy IC3.gov)

IC3 received 68,013 complaints from victims over the age of 60, who were bilked out of a combined $835 million. Older Americans are the favorite target of criminals, who believe the elderly have accumulated a lot of money and other assets, according to the report.

Donna Gregory, unit chief of IC3, said 2019 saw criminals evolve new tactics on some old-fashioned scams. No uptick on new types of e-fraud was detected.

“Criminals are getting so sophisticated. It is getting harder and harder for victims to spot the red flags and tell real from fake,” Gregory said.

With mobile phone use becoming nearly universal, fraud attempts are increasingly coming in the form of text messages (smishing). Standing fake websites (pharming) are also growing.

“You may get a text message that appears to be your bank asking you to verify information on your account,” said Gregory. “Or you may even search a service online and inadvertently end up on a fraudulent site that gathers your bank or credit card information.”

Individuals need to be extremely skeptical and double check everything, Gregory said.

“In the same way your bank and online accounts have started to require two-factor authentication — apply that to your life,” she said. “Verify requests in person or by phone, double check web and email addresses, and don’t follow the links provided in any messages.”

Since its inception in 2000, the IC3 has received a total of 4,883,231 complaints. To report suspected criminal Internet activity, you can visit www.ic3.gov.

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