TAMPA BAY, Fla. — According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, cybercriminals are creating fake cryptocurrency investment platforms to steal people’s money.
A report published last week by the FBI shows that since last year, 244 people have fallen victim to fraudulent cryptocurrency investment websites losing a total of $42.7 million.
The FBI said these websites claim crypto investors owe taxes or fees and will threaten to take your money if you don’t pay more, which is what Tampa bakery owner Lorena Brunson believes happened to her.
“We make birthday cakes, decorated sugar cookies, fruit bouquets, chocolate-covered strawberries,” said Brunson.
After retiring, Lorena Brunson followed her dream and became the owner of Beanie and Bellies Cupcakery in south Tampa, but COVID hit her business hard.
“And I had lost my partner earlier this year, so I was kind of struggling as far as money,” said Brunson.
The bakery was in danger of going under, and she needed help. Then last month, out of nowhere, she said it looked like she was going to get the break she needed.
Her son Joseph met someone on Instagram who introduced him to investing through a cryptocurrency website, and he was making money.
“I wanted to make sure it was legitimate, so I asked her if I could withdraw the funds, and she showed me how to do it,” said Joseph Brunson.
He said after a week, he was getting big returns.
“So I was telling all my family members, ‘Hey, this is probably legitimate. Let’s try to make some money off of this; it might help,’” said Joseph.
So Joseph’s mother, Lorena, started investing what she had been saving, and at first, she said it went well.
“The money had doubled and was tripling, and we thought, this is great, let’s invest more,” she said.
They invested more. But when they wanted to make another withdrawal, they were told they needed to pay taxes, or they would lose the money they had in their account. So they scrambled to get the tax money, even borrowing from friends and family.
“I took cash advances from my credit card because I can return it back in a matter of days,” said Lorena.
They say they paid $29,000 but were told that because they had help from others, they had to pay a risk hedge fee.
“And then we had two days to get them the $62,000,” said Lorena.
By this time, they realized something was wrong, so they filed a report with the police and FBI.
But it was already too late. Within a month, Lorena says she lost more than $100,000 and fears she will lose her bakery.
“I’m probably going to lose everything,” said Lorena.
She said the most frustrating part is the website is still active.
Cryptocurrency expert Armando Pantoja said Brunson’s experience with the website follows a familiar pattern of cybercriminals.
“They take the money, the crypto, from you. And then they’re able to manipulate the database on this made-up website. They can put whatever they want. They could say you have $10,000, $50,000, $100,000,” said Pantoja.
He said the website operator threatened to take your money unless you paid more.
“Normally, it’s like you have to pay taxes or an international exchange fee. They just come up with something for you to send them more money,” said Pantoja.
The FBI said it's seeing many more cases and that the cryptocurrency world is still very new to most people.
“That's the other thing with cryptocurrency; it’s still kind of the wild west,” said Sundanah Parsons, FBI special agent.
Special agents Sundanah Parsons and Kelly Shannon in Tampa’s FBI field office say that most crypto exchanges are not criminal. Still, if a fraudulent case originates in a foreign country, it presents a challenge.
“Criminals that may be located overseas or websites that may not be located here in the United States, it takes time to work with foreign partners and coordinate on all of those investigative matters,” said Shannon.
When it comes down to it, experts say you need to look out for yourself.
Pantoja said some red flags in the crypto world are:
- People reaching out through social media
- A website that looks outdated has stretched images, misspellings, or oddly worded sentences
- Being rushed to make quick decisions
- Big returns
“An average return in the stock market is 9%. Anything above that, you need to do your due diligence,” said Pantoja.
Which is something Joseph says he wishes he had done more of.
“It’s heartbreaking because I’ve never seen her (Lorena) cry, maybe more than once in my life. That hurt a lot because she put all her trust in me,” said Joseph.
For Lorena, she said she wants to pay back her friends and family and warn others.
“I would hate to have to see someone else endure all of this. You work hard for all you have your whole life and to have it all taken away in a matter of a month,” said Lorena.
We sent a message to the company whose website displays Brunson’s crypto account. There was no phone number, only a Gmail address. We have not received a response by the time of this publication.
The FBI encourages people to report any cybercriminal activity to their nearest FBI field office.
Wendi Lane at WFTS first reported this story.