Every time she opens her laptop, Vanessa Hartman feels a twinge of anxiety.
It comes from a certain cyber security nightmare that’s plagued the Oxford Avenue resident since last June. It’s one that speaks all too clearly to the perils of living in these tech-heavy times, in the throes of an oft-maddening, sometimes terrifying, culture of computers, information technology and virtual reality.
Scams targeting elderly Riverdale and North Riverdale residents reportedly are on the rise, and Hartman — a self-described freelance writer with a passion for women’s and civil rights — found herself on the wrong end of one involving scammers posing as computer security experts.
Hartman’s woes started in the thick of last summer. While trying to download an app onto her laptop, she repeatedly received a message warning her it contained a virus and that her download “had been quarantined.”
Desperate for help, the 64-year-old tried reaching a tech security expert at a number she believed belonged to computer security company McAfee. But it wasn’t until too late she realized she’d instead called a cyber scam wizard.
A ring of alleged cyber criminals sunk their talons into Hartman, reportedly telling her she’d have to shell out for software to disinfect her laptop — which they’d access once she’d paid them using Google Play cards — sending her frantically scampering back and forth to the West 235th Street Rite Aid buying the cards for several sweltering days.
“It kept escalating every day” as her scammers continued demanding money, Hartman said. “The prices kept increasing.”
It wasn’t until a manager at the local Rite Aid warned Hartman she was a victim of a scam, after receiving a tip from his company’s higher-ups.
“‘We’ve had a number of women like you running back and forth buying these cards,’” Hartman recalled the manager told her, adding her McAfee impostors promised money she paid them to exorcize her laptop’s ills would be refunded.
But it wasn’t, Hartman said.
“Once I refused to hand over the last thousand dollars, an image came over my screen of a laptop with a giant gold padlock on it.” She’d been barred from accessing her own computer.
When Hartman refused to fork over another payment her scammers demanded in order to unlock it, they became “verbally abusive,” Hartman said. Ultimately, they extracted nearly $5,000 from the beleaguered writer.
Hartman finally called the 50th Precinct, which is still investigating.
“I’ve just started feeling not so traumatized by” the ordeal, Hartman said. “I may never get that money back. I feel like I’m being bounced around like a pingpong ball, and that there’s no one willing to help me.”
It’s the first time she’s been scammed. “It’s like having your house broken into, but you also feel ashamed — and so stupid.”
Yet, Hartman’s certainly not alone.
“Sadly, this is an issue that is all too common in the consumer technology space,” said McAfee spokesman Craig Sirois, adding it behooves internet and cable customers to be extremely cautious about giving out personal information, and especially suspicious of callers claiming to be tech support.
But luckily for Hartman, police say they’re cracking down, while the 50th Precinct is doing all it can to warn its typically less tech-savvy, yet sizeable, elderly population — who tend more often to get caught in scammers’ crosshairs — to be on-guard.
“The best way to fight it is to get people not to fall for it,” said Juan Ventura, community affairs officer at the 5-0. Unfortunately, tracking down cyber shysters can be tricky, since scammers can operate from just about anywhere.
“There are times the people calling are probably not even in this country,” Ventura said. That’s why prevention’s the best defense, like safeguarding credit cards, debit cards, IDs — anything to stem the tide of grand larcenies, which actually dropped nearly 14 percent last year, according to NYPD statistics.
Making matters worse, scams probably aren’t going away anytime soon.
“I don’t want to say it’s on the rise, but it’s still happening,” Ventura said. “The biggest weapon that we have is educating” elderly residents about scammers’ slippery tactics, while collaborating with local senior centers to give lectures on how to avoid them.
In addition to pretending to work for tech giants like Google, or for internet and cable providers like Optimum, some scammers even claim to be cops requesting money.
“We don’t do that,” Ventura said, but scammers will “make up any company they want. No one should be calling for money over the phone. Asking you to pay in Google Play? That should raise concern.”
And when one of these impostors calls with instructions to dial a number for a certain service or company, Ventura said, don’t. Instead, he urges people verify the number for themselves by tracking it down on the actual company’s legitimate website.
In fact, some scammers devise decidedly devious tactics to wring cash from unsuspecting seniors, Ventura said. That included Dec. 12 when an 87-year-old Riverdale resident told police she got a call at her Henry Hudson Parkway home from a guy claiming to be her grandson asking for money — to the tune of nearly $10,000.
The woman sent it off — after coaxing from another fellow purporting to be an attorney. She later had second thoughts about it and called the cops.
Fortunately for the woman, police swooped in. Collaborating with both FedEx and the Miami police, investigators managed to track down and intercept the cash as it floated around Florida before returning it to its rightful owner.
Such schemes, unfortunately, occur far more frequently than Ventura would like.
“It’s a very terrible thing,” he said. “But with us educating and going out, especially to the senior centers, it’s gone down a lot, because they’re not falling for it as much anymore.”
As for Hartman? She’s vowed hyper-vigilance to avoid similar future straits — whatever it takes.
“I’m afraid to open my laptop these days,” she said, as proliferating spams only add to her anxiety every time she switches from scribbling in notebooks to tapping at her keyboard.
“I feel like I’ll never download anything — ever again. I don’t feel comfortable doing that.”