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Thousands of Alaskans were victims of internet crime last year. The FBI warns that expanded AI could make the problem worse

Chloe Martin

Last year, more than 1,600 Alaskans were victims of internet crime, according to FBI data. They were disproportionately elderly and reported losses of more than $17 million.

Current online threats to rural Alaskans are very similar to current online threats to all Americans, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

According to complaint center reports for Alaska in 2022, the top three crimes reported by victims were tech support scams, personal data breaches, and extortion.

“As far as personal data breaches, I'm speaking more about leaks or spillage of personal data released from secure locations to untrusted environments, or a security incident in which an individual's sensitive protected or confidential data is copied, transmitted, viewed, stolen, or used by an unauthorized individual,” said Assistant Special Agent Brandon Waddle.

Also high on the list were romance scams.

Chloe Martin

“We're talking sort of generically, people engaging in online romance with people in Alaska and never meeting in person, but scamming those people out of money to support their lifestyle outside of Alaska. Or it could be inside of Alaska, but they never meet in person,” Waddle said.

Waddle also said that this is only a reflection of what is reported. There is no data for unreported cybercrimes.

“It's an embarrassing situation for people and they don't always report it to us. So while this gives us a good foundation, it only represents probably a portion of what is actually out there,” Waddle said.

There are ways to reduce the risk of being scammed online. Waddle calls it cyber hygiene and it includes antivirus software, updating a computer’s operating system, and a healthy dose of common sense.

“I think it is true, the old saying if something looks too good to be true, you know, it probably is. Especially when it comes to internet fraud,” Waddle said.

Waddle warned of unsolicited phone calls, mailings, and door to door service offers. He recommended not sending personally identifiable information, money, jewelry, or gift cards.

Waddle also said that people should never give unknown people remote access to devices or accounts. He also reminded people to be careful of downloads and links in emails.

“Think before you link is sort of a thing that we developed here in the FBI several years ago to keep people from linking with individuals they don't know. Could potentially be scammers on LinkedIn or on Facebook,” Waddle said.

With the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools online, and people who have access to them, these scams are likely to happen more often and they’ll probably get more sophisticated too. The FBI warns the public that people are creating synthetic content, better known as deep fakes, where they alter photos or videos to target people. Technology advancements are continuously improving the quality and accessibility of artificial intelligence-enabled content creation.

Waddle said anyone who is scammed should report the crime.

“It's basically a self explanatory process: you walk your way through reporting a crime, you leave your name, the details of the crime. And this database gives the public a reliable and convenient mechanism to report these Internet Crimes,” Waddle said.

Chloe Martin

The FBI will analyze and share the information from complaints to the right agency, because other agencies, such as Homeland Security, local law enforcement, or others, could be involved. Waddle stressed that by reporting internet crime victims are not only alerting law enforcement to the activity, but aiding in the overall fight against cybercrime.

“I think it's important to know that if it's happening in rural Alaska, it's probably happening in other places in America. And the more reports we get, even from rural Alaska, allows us to aggregate more information from across the nation, allows us to see trends and better be able to go after the cyber perpetrator,” Waddle said.

Francisco Martínezcuello is the KYUK News Reporting Fellow and a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.