Per capita, Alaska is the most-scammed state in the country, according to the state’s Department of Law. So far this year, there have been close to a thousand reports of fraud. As CoastAlaska’s Angela Denning reports, some scammers pretend to be local businesses, requiring residents to stay extra-vigilant.
When 73-year-old John Havrilek of Petersburg saw an email from GCI, his internet provider, he read through it carefully. There had been changes to his services recently and he wanted to know what’s next.
“It looked very legit,” he said. “It had the GCI logo on it and everything.”
It told him that in order to continue services to reply with his account and password, which he did. The next thing he knew he had friends contacting him.
“One call after another after another, people that we had in our email list called us and said, did you just email me? And this is from people all over the country, relatives and things like this,” Havrilek said. “And I said, ‘No.’ And they said, ‘Well, we just got an email from you saying, ‘Hi, are you busy and could you email me? Regards John.”
A few friends did respond to the email and they told Havrilek the scammers—pretending to be him–wanted something specific.
“They asked for, ‘Oh, I’m trying to get a $300 Amazon gift certificate, could you help me?” Havrilek said.
As far as Havrilek knows, none of his friends gave the scammers any money. He changed his email account and contacted GCI about it.
This type of scam, called an imposter scam or phishing, is by far the most common type in Alaska. It’s when someone pretends to be somebody else to get money. Sometimes it’s a familiar person and other times they’re purporting to be from organizations like the FBI, social security, the IRS or banks.
They all have one thing in common. There’s a problem.
“Either there’s a problem or something that you need to do,” said Assistant Attorney General John Haley of the Alaska Department of Law. “You’re locked out of your account, you need to click this link.”
Haley says the scammers will ask for an immediate response and sometimes threaten to arrest the victims.
“You know, I think most people would like to think they wouldn’t be fooled by these, but people are,” said Haley.
Alaskans lose a lot of money this way. Of scams reported so far this year, residents have lost $5.5 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Last year it was $14.2 million.
“We have people who go around from store to store buying thousands and thousands of dollars worth of gift cards giving the money to a scammer who they believe works for the IRS or the FBI,” Haley said.
Besides gift cards, they’ll often ask to be paid in Bitcoin transfers or cryptocurrency.
GCI spokesperson Josh Edge says the company is aware of scams that use GCI’s name and logo, like the one involving the Petersburg resident.
“Unfortunately, we do receive reports of similar scams and phishing attempts very regularly,” he said.
Edge says sometimes it can be hard to identify scams, but if there’s a doubt, Alaskans should not hesitate to call GCI.
“If it seems suspicious at all, if they’re asking for any types of personal information, passwords, things like that, reach out to us directly,” Edge said.
According to Haley, although seniors lose the most money through fraud, 18 to 30-year-olds actually get scammed the most. He says scammers will pay to find out who to target.
“There’s a large market for information and some of that on the dark web and some of that frankly out in the open,” Haley said. “So, it is easier for scammers to go out and buy information to try and find the right people to target, which I think is unfortunate.”
Scammers are often working from other countries where American dollars are worth a lot more.
“You know, they’re able to scam somebody and get $5,000 out of it,” Haley said. “I mean, that’s such a sort of tempting target.”
If someone does give scammers information by accident, Haley says they should consider freezing their credit card and bank accounts, at least temporarily. You can also call the consumer protection line of the Attorney General’s Office at (907) 269-5200.
Other than that, the best line of defense is to stay vigilant.