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After being scammed, one woman tries to get her money back

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Last year, the FBI recorded an all-time high in cybercrimes, representing billions in potential losses. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi of NPR's Planet Money brings us one victim's story.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: Francis is a white-collar worker in her 40s - lives in New York. And we're only going to use her first name here to protect her professional reputation. The scam that turned her life upside-down started a little over a year ago with what seemed to be a message from Citibank about a strange wire transfer from her account. Then...

FRANCIS: I get a text saying, oh, this is David from the security department. And I'm like, the security department for Citi 'cause of the wire.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So she hops on the phone, and this so-called David Smith (ph) explains that Francis has been hacked. He says he's working with the FBI to help protect her money and needs access to her accounts. They stay in touch over the next couple of months as she slowly starts to piece together what has happened.

FRANCIS: It was so hard to try to face the fact that, oh, you've been scammed in a really costly way. You're like, oh, my God. Can I even admit this?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: By the time she finally did admit what was happening, the scammers had drained more than $800,000 out of her retirement and investment accounts - nearly her entire life savings. But when Francis reported what had happened to the actual FBI, she immediately hit a wall. The agent she spoke to told her that, unfortunately, they wouldn't be opening an investigation.

We reached out to the FBI to understand why, but they didn't make anyone available for an interview. So we called up Kyle Armstrong. He spent 14 years investigating financial crimes at the FBI. And Kyle says it's helpful to think about where Francis' case fits into the FBI's broader mission.

KYLE ARMSTRONG: The FBI's No. 1 priority is counterterrorism. And so they are, by design, going to be prioritizing nation-state-style cyber and financial institution threats.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The FBI does take on individual cases of cybercrime that people like Francis report to their Internet Crime Complaint Center. But they receive so many complaints, they have to be extremely selective.

ARMSTRONG: There are 2,400 complaints received on a daily basis.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Wow. There are 2,400 complaints sent to the FBI every day?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Losses in 2023 were $12.5 billion overall.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: When you compare these numbers to the 10,000 or so FBI agents in the country, you start to understand how hard it can be to get law enforcement to bite. And when it comes to deciding which cases to pursue...

ARMSTRONG: The primary factor in determining priority is going to be dollar amount. And so if there's a $50,000 case and there's a $5 million case, the $5 million case is going to be prioritized.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And then there is the time factor. Francis got in touch with the FBI several months after her money was transferred out of her accounts.

ARMSTRONG: Time is probably the most critical element of these cases because the money can move immediately internationally and be cashed out, and it's very, very difficult to get back.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Now, Francis did also file reports with her financial institutions. And as Carla Sanchez-Adams with the National Consumer Law Center explains, banks in the U.S. are legally required to help make their customers whole in the case of many unauthorized electronic transfers.

CARLA SANCHEZ-ADAMS: But then if it's one where the consumer was deceived and made the payment - they initiated it - there's no statute requiring a financial institution to reimburse that consumer for that loss.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So both law enforcement and her financial institutions turned out to be dead ends for Francis. But recently, she was able to enlist a pair of lawyers who specialize in tracing lost assets and work on contingency.

FRANCIS: I hope I'll see a light at the end of the tunnel. You know, I've never been through this. It's uncharted waters for me.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Francis knows it's a long shot, but she's hoping these financial bounty hunters will help guide her back to shore.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).