Elder Scam. PHOTO: Cybercrime Magazine.

74-Year-Old Duped Out Of $230,000 By ‘Homeland Security’

Henriette Schmuhl, victim of an elder scam, was left penniless and desperate after being hacked.

David Braue

Melbourne, Australia – Sep. 19, 2022

Henriette Schmuhl had always been careful about who she picked up the phone for, but when the call bearing the label HOMELAND SECURITY came in, she thought it might have been too important to ignore.

It was, as so often happens, a scammer — but it is only now, after losing her life’s savings of $230,000 in a maelstrom of criminal deception, that the 74-year-old Chicago-area grandmother realizes the telltale signs were there all along.

The caller on the phone certainly carried an air of authority, promising her that he was going to help her because she had been wrongly accused of drug trafficking and money laundering — but that “he felt that this was definitely not something that I had done.”

“He was very kind to me,” she told Cybercrime Magazine as she related his plan to help her move her money into another account where it would be safe.

Cybercrime Radio: “A Homeland Security Scam”

Life savings lost.

He encouraged her to look up his alleged name — Andrew Hall — on the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website, and knew enough about her life that she felt she had to work with him.

“He had so much information on me,” she recalls, including where she had graduated college, details of the homes she had purchased and sold, and more.

“It was like, ‘Whoa, this guy really knows me,’” she explained, “and he had a lot of information. So he must be with the government in order to know all that stuff.”

Family members would later tell her that information is readily available to anybody on the Internet, through sites that scrape public records — “but I didn’t know all that,” she said. “I don’t use the Internet.”

That’s when “Andrew” began to systematically extract Schmuhl’s life savings by guiding her through the process of withdrawing her money at a Bitcoin ATM. She naturally had no idea what Bitcoin was, but as the “very kind” voice on the phone guided her through every step she dutifully withdrew $9,000 and converted it to cryptocurrency.

“He went with me on my cell phone,” she said. “Everywhere I want, he told me what to say, what to do, and how to do it. He was always there with me — and it freaked me out a lot. I felt so guilty that I was always looking to see if somebody was going to come after me.”

But nobody did — which reinforced her belief that she was protecting the money that, over the next two months, she incrementally withdrew, and followed the scammer’s instructions about how to convert it to cryptocurrency.

“I sat at home most of the day until he would call to say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this today,’” Schmuhl recalls. “We’d go out and I’d have to go to different places” so she didn’t attract suspicion from bank tellers or others.

The scammer eventually branched out into gift cards, pushing Schmuhl to buy Apple and Best Buy gift cards — always in smaller denominations to avoid attracting attention — and then send him photos of the serial numbers on their backs.

Even when she told her husband what she was doing, Schmuhl pushed him to allow her to continue — which he did, grudgingly.

More victims every day

Schmuhl’s experiences will quickly send alarm bells ringing for those that are more aware of scammers’ ways of working, but for an Internet novice who was easily swayed, her experiences are all too common.

Indeed, senior citizens are being routinely fleeced out of significant sums by malicious cybercriminals that target them with Homeland Security and other frauds.

Average losses from such “elder fraud” reached $18,246 last year, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaints Center (IC3)’s latest report into elder fraud.

That’s a 74 percent increase over 2020 — with 92,371 reported victims losing a total $1.7 billion — and the problem is continuing in large part because scammers have become very good at playing a con game with unwitting victims that may not have the same level of scams literacy as younger citizens.

It was only when the man online became hard to reach, and began getting defensive when she suggested that he had taken her money, that the whole experience clicked with Schmuhl.

She took piles of printed transaction receipts, Bitcoin QR codes, and more to the local authorities, who began an investigation that ultimately led to the realization that she wasn’t the only one being scammed by the fictitious Andrew Hall.

“They found out that other people had been on the same day, putting money into the same places,” Schmuhl said, recounting a digital paper trail that led to a criminal gang on the Mediterranean island of Malta – which was pooling money and laundering it using cryptocurrency to ensure that it could not be recovered by authorities.

The whole experience has been devastating for Schmuhl and her husband, who are working with their accountant, tax authorities, banks, credit card companies, and others to figure out how they can pay off their debts and hope for even a glimpse of the retirement they had envisioned.

“I was just so foolish,” she said, “and I don’t know why I allowed myself to go that far. And I just want people to be aware, because they’re so good at what they do.”

“There are just too many other things in life to do besides living this fear and trauma.”

David Braue is an award-winning technology writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

Go here to read all of David’s Cybercrime Magazine articles.