Tech Troublemakers

Appears in the October 2023 issue.

How to stay safe amid a growing tide of cybercrime

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Our heavy reliance on technology in daily life means we also have to be vigilant against the darker side of all this convenience. From online scams and identity theft to phishing and financial exploitation of the elderly, cybercrime has become a multibillion-dollar threat to both businesses and individuals, which has likewise made it a significant priority for the Naperville Police Department. Detective James Koukal says the department currently has one detective dedicated to high-tech crimes, while other financial crimes detectives have received additional training regarding how scammers can exploit technology. With a variety of cybercrime cases on the uptick in recent years, Koukal shares a few things to keep in mind.

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Cybercrime schemes on the rise

Koukal says NPD has seen a recent increase in what are known as “pig butchering” scenarios, wherein victims meet purported investment professionals online offering the “opportunity of a lifetime” in a crypto currency platform. Once “invested” and having seen some gains, when victims attempt to withdraw any money, the company informs them that they have to pay taxes (up to 20 percent or more) on those increases—usually within just a day or two—or risk forfeiting their initial funds. In most cases, Koukal notes, the “tax” is higher than the amount initially invested, and most victims don’t pay it and end up losing their investment.

Another recent financial crime trend has been a move away from the widespread scam of having victims purchase gift cards to pay for virus removal or phony arrest warrants, or to “secure” the victim’s bank account after it has allegedly been compromised. “Through public education and the efforts of retailers, consumers have become more aware of the dangers of purchasing gift cards for people they don’t know,” Koukal says. “We have received a number of calls from alert employees who contacted NPD when they observed suspicious behavior.” Scammers have instead been asking victims to send Bitcoin or other digital currency as means of payment, allowing for a faster transfer of funds to nearly anywhere in the world.

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How to reduce your risks

Koukal compares identity theft and similar scams to baking a cake—that is, a scammer needs the correct ingredients for it to look right. The goal, he says, is to deny scammers as many ingredients as possible.

“There is a plethora of open-source intelligence from data brokers, social media, and other search engines,” he explains. “That’s why it’s important to stay on top of the simple steps you can take, such as asking data brokers to remove your information, ensuring your social media settings are set to private, and being careful when utilizing open Wi-Fi, such as by using a virtual private network (VPN) to connect.”

Koukal also recommends changing passwords on a regular basis and using complex passwords that employ numbers, upper- and lower-case letters, and symbols.

What to do if you’re a victim

Koukal says that if you believe you’ve been a victim of a cybercrime, it’s important to report it to the jurisdiction where you reside as quickly as possible. NPD follows up on cases with potential investigative leads, but it’s critical that victims bring as much information about what occurred as possible. For example, if a person sent cryptocurrency as part of a scam, the receipt of that transaction can be vital to furthering any investigation, as can things like the phone numbers and email addresses used by the offenders.

“One of the frustrating parts of investigating these cases is that a majority of the offenders are not within the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement,” Koukal says. “But we have excellent working relationships with our federal partners and are members of several cybercrime task forces. If a cybercrime occurs in another jurisdiction, we lean on our federal partners as well as other state and local law enforcement agencies to bring offenders to justice.”


Photos: Michelle Rae Sobi/Grow Wellness Group