Elderly Hilton Head woman scammed out of $500K. Her banks failed to stop it, lawsuit says

Editor’s note: The Island Packet agreed to grant anonymity to the victim’s family in this story because the victim may be still at risk from the perpetrators.

The eight-month and nearly $500,000 gut-wrenching ordeal began with a single download.

Shirley, a 74-year-old Hilton Head retiree living near Coligny Beach, mistakenly thought an email — purportedly from the online payment system PayPal — was legitimate. When she opened it, the fraudulent message warned the woman’s account had been hacked, and offered a “customer support” software solution to fix the issue.

But neither the email nor the software came from PayPal. The file was designed and delivered by thieves to bleed all the cash they could from her accounts.

The “customer support” download was actually a remote desktop protocol, which allows outside users to connect to and operate a computer remotely. Once downloaded, the program gave entry to an organized network of scammers, providing them broad access to Shirley’s computer data, personal information and passwords for several of her bank accounts.

From there, the fraudsters launched an elaborate operation of theft and lies. Through most of 2022, they quietly took thousands from Shirley’s checking and savings accounts, eventually convincing her to make large cash withdrawals for conversion to gift cards and cryptocurrency.

A lawsuit filed May 8 in Beaufort County courts names three companies — PayPal, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — not as the perpetrators of the fraud, but as liable for not questioning, pausing or stopping the fraudulent transactions in accordance with state and federal consumer protection laws, according to the court summons.

“The banks have to do their part,” said Dave Maxfield, a Columbia consumer protection attorney representing Shirley and her family. “When there’s a preventable loss that the bank could have stopped, even by just hitting ‘pause’ on the transaction, they need to step up and take responsibility for it.”

Court documents say all three corporations “failed to take corrective actions” while the fraud took place, even when the victim made unusually large in-person withdrawals from her banks.

The scam finally came to light on Dec. 10 — eight months after the victim received the first fraudulent email from the thieves.

“I’ll never forget that day,” said Nathan, the victim’s son. As he sat down on the couch for some Saturday morning coffee he received a text from an unknown number. “It said something like ‘your mom is part of a very big scam and we’re about to go after the last of her money, which is in her investment accounts,’” he told The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette.

Additional texts to Nathan revealed the swath of personal data the fraudsters had on file, including login credentials for nearly a dozen of his mother’s online accounts, detailed reports of when her computer went in for repairs, and even the financial information of Shirley’s 97-year-old mother.

Digging his mother out of the scheme was a long and complicated process, Nathan said. “It’s such a tangled web that they weave,” he added. “I think I had to lock down 22 accounts across 11 financial institutions.”

He recalled making a trip to the Verizon store, where he bought his mom a new phone with a new number, created under his own account. By the next day, the scammers had found Shirley’s new number — and the texts from the thieves kept flooding in.

The sheer amount of personal data scammers have access to makes it easy to “brainwash” their victims, Nathan said. “It creates a situation where you believe it’s all true, because how could it not be?” he said. “They know everything about you, even if you haven’t told it to them.”

The lawsuit calls for the defendant companies to return all stolen funds in addition to damages for the emotional strain suffered by Shirley and her family.

A spokesperson from Wells Fargo said the company is reviewing the complaint but advised the bank cannot comment on pending litigation. Representatives from PayPal and Bank of America did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Beaufort County is a ‘target-rich environment’ for scammers

Although Shirley’s story is the “most complicated” he’s ever seen, Maxfield says about 40% of his cases involve similar financial scams. Calls from victims of fraud and scams come to his office almost daily.

Maxfield says these scams have changed massively in recent years. While schemes from the internet’s infancy revolved around “hope and opportunism” — emails from princes and heirs hoping to share their wealth with a lucky few — modern scams operate on fear, warning customers their data or savings are at risk. Some even threaten victims with potential jail time.

“In mom’s case, they absolutely had (put) the fear of death in her,” Nathan said, explaining why his mother didn’t reach out to relatives for help. “She was so fearful of what these people were going to do to her.”

Investigators from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office say local financial scams are becoming more frequent and more convincing. Some involve scammers posing as deputies, telling people they owe money to the agency for missing jury duty.

The losses are staggering

Fraudsters stole more than $1 million from county residents in 2022, said Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Maj. Angela Viens. The year’s largest loss came in September, when a Beaufort woman had over $800,000 stolen by con artists claiming to be FBI agents, telling her she had to buy gold to protect her assets after her identity had been compromised.

County investigators have written 40 reports for scam and fraud crimes so far in 2023, Viens said.

“We are a target-rich environment in the sense of retirees,” said Lt. Eric Calendine, who has taken a special interest in scam and fraud investigations for the Sheriff’s Office.

The county’s most common cases involve fraudsters pretending a person’s personal data has been breached by a computer virus, or masquerading as bank representatives to convince customers their accounts are at risk, Calendine previously told The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette.

Arrests and recovery are rare

These cases are notoriously hard to crack. Viens said the department’s solve rate is “very low” for scam and fraud investigations, in tune with low indictment rates across the country and worldwide. One analysis of 2021 data from the United Kingdom suggests only 0.1% of the country’s frauds result in criminal charges.

Scam investigators are hindered by a number of roadblocks, Viens said. The majority of schemes targeting Beaufort County residents are operated out-of-state or even internationally, making it difficult to pinpoint a perpetrator. And fraudulent funds are often funneled through other unknowing victims — “money mules” — thus obscuring the payment’s original source.

Even after catching on to the crime, many victims of fraud delay reporting their financial losses to police out of embarrassment, Viens added, which over time lessens the likelihood of a successful investigation.

But police can sometimes stop scams in their tracks if they’re reported early enough. In 2018, Viens said, one fraud operation convinced a Beaufort County resident to ship a box filled with $70,000 in cash via FedEx. Catching wind of the case, Sheriff’s Office deputies were able to intercept the package at the delivery center and return the money. Later that year, officers retrieved and returned another package containing $35,000 to a different victim, who had already lost $25,000 in a previous shipment that could not be returned.

County police always encourage scam victims to report incidents to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), which helps federal investigators identify cases’ common themes and shared perpetrators. Their reporting process has helped solve multiple local investigations, Viens said, most recently in March.

How to protect yourself

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission warns that many scammers will pressure victims to act immediately, before their claims can be verified. Here are steps you can take to protect yourself from financial scams:

  • Do not accept calls from an unknown number.

  • Never give your name or other personal information over the phone in response to a request that you didn’t expect.

  • Do not fall under pressure to act immediately. If they are a legitimate organization, they will not pressure you to make a decision immediately.

  • Do not make payments to someone insisting you pay them in wire transfers, using gift cards or with cryptocurrency.

Anyone who thinks they have been the victim of a scam or fraud may call their local police department or submit a tip to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at: https://www.ic3.gov.