WVU issues community warning about recent financial exploitation scams

Feb. 4—West Virginia University sent a warning to the campus community last week, urging people to be careful when interacting with others online and when receiving unsolicited phone calls or text messages.

The warning came after University Police received multiple reports in January regarding alleged fraud and harassment schemes.

The majority of the complaints involved "sextortion " with victims reporting someone was threatening to distribute private and sensitive material if monetary demands were not met.

A separate case involved a "government impersonator scam, " where the victim received a call from someone claiming to be a law enforcement officer threatening arrest for missing jury duty unless a payment is made.

Neither scam is new to law enforcement and in December, the FBI issued a national public safety alert regarding financial sextortion scams targeting young boys.

UPD Lt. Jeff Wright said this is not the first time scams like these have been reported at the university.

"I think it's probably a pretty normal thing for most agencies, " Wright said.

Sextortion often begins with people meeting an unknown person on social media and building a relationship with them over time.

"Eventually the person on the other end requests photos of them and sometimes they send photos they probably shouldn't, " Wright said. "We have had multiple cases where the victim has provided the suspect with photos of themselves."

Another practice Wright has encountered is the suspect "actually accesses the victim's camera roll and takes photos from their camera roll or their profile pictures, " he said. "Then they will take those pictures and put them on like a collage with other pictures that aren't of them.

"Then they will say things like, 'I made this collage and if you don't send me X amount of dollars, then I am going to send them to your job and your family and your friends, '" he said.

Wright, who is in charge of the UPD detective division, said they have had very few incidents where photos have actually been dispersed to the public and they will take any case that comes up as far as they absolutely can before closing it out.

To prevent private images or information getting released, Wright said the best advice is to not post personal information or pictures on your social media accounts that you wouldn't want the whole world to see, make your account as private as possible and don't accept friend requests from people you don't know.

"If you flat out don't know that person, " Wright questioned, "then why are you adding them to your list ? Because you are just giving them access to everything on your account.

"I'm not saying there aren't legitimate people out there who just want to find friends on social media, " he continued, "but there's also a lot of people looking to do things they shouldn't be or that you didn't really want to happen."

Wright said if you are being blackmailed over release of sensitive photos, regardless of whether you willingly sent the person your information, "call us immediately, don't send the money. It is very difficult to get that money back once you send it.

"Even if the person is arrested and charged, the only way to get your money back is through restitution, " which he said is not always a guarantee and can take a long time before you see a return.

"Honestly, if they have pictures of you and their intent is to send those to people, they are going to send those regardless of whether you send money or not, " Wright said. "I can tell you without doubt that 9 out of 10 of these types of cases — if they send money, almost immediately they say 'OKnow I want more money."

Government impersonator scams are also fairly common, but are easy to avoid by not giving financial information on the phone to a number you did not call. Caller ID can no longer be trusted as scammers can use fake names and phone numbers that appear legitimate.

If you think a call or message could be real, hang up the phone and call the government agency directly at a number you know is correct and don't wire money, send cash, or use gift cards or cryptocurrency to pay someone because it is difficult to track that money.

Remember that a government agency will not call, email or text you and ask for money or personal information. If you believe you are the victim of a financial exploitation scam, report it to a local law enforcement agency, the FBI, or the Federal Trade Commission.