Cryptocurrency scam drains retired St. Pete victim's life savings

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — When Maria Seiler, 79, got an email purportedly from PayPal claiming she purchased the cryptocurrency bitcoin, she was confused and called the number listed to fix the error. What happened next was a series of cons that took her for $79,500.

Senior citizens are the main targets of scammers because they have more savings than most and are kind-hearted. Criminals took advantage of Seiler’s kindness and lack of computer skills. They used fear, intimidation, guilt, and nearly every trick in the conman’s book to dupe her.

We sat down with Seiler inside her St. Pete home. She is actively involved in her community and church, is a mother, grandmother, and one of the sweetest people you can meet. When criminals got their claws into her, there was no letting go.

Seiler told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska when she opened the fake phishing email from PayPal and clicked on an attachment. It was malware that took over her computer and life.

“Everything was fine before the email,” Seiler said. “It was a nightmare; my passwords, everything, my bill pay everything. I’ve been rather sick. The stress has been awful. But my faith keeps me strong.”

Locked out of her bank account, the email advised Seiler to call a number to dispute the charge for Bitcoin. She was advised to go to her computer (that was hacked), and without opening another link or attachment, the thieves remotely opened up a box on her screen. She was told to put $20 into the box that popped up on her computer screen. When she did, the man on the other end of the line said she accidentally put in $60,000.

“He is so sympathetic. And so panic-stricken. ‘Oh my God, you put $60,000. Oh my God, I’m gonna lose my job. I’ve been here for years.’ Getting my sympathy, you know, that’s what they play on. That was awful. He said your savings account had been locked in a virtual hold because you owe us this money back that you got from us. That’s how he trapped me.”

Then she was asked to put in another $20 for a refund, and the man said $20,000 was accidentally keyed in.

So the man wouldn’t lose his job, she rushed to her bank to do a wire transfer; when she looked in her checking account, $20,000 and $59,500 were, in fact, in her checking. The problem is the criminals moved it; unbeknownst to Seiler, they controlled her account and transferred her money from her savings account.

The criminals also spoofed the numbers they were calling from to make Seiler believe the lies even more.

“I was panicking because it was made to a bank that was in Memphis, Tennessee, which is right outside where my daughter lives,” Seiler said. “And the phone calls I’ve been getting from them had all been from Hilo, Hawaii, where my son lives in Maui. So I was terrified. I didn’t know what they were going to do next.”

“We don’t see this decreasing at all. If anything, we see it either staying the same amount of victims or increasing,” Detective Meghan Rulison with the St. Petersburg Police Department told Paluska.

Rulison said Seiler’s case is still active, so she couldn’t comment on specifics. But what happened to Seiler mirrors other scams the department is investigating. They can be imposter scams where a caller claims to be with a government agency, cryptocurrency scams, PayPal, and Amazon “refund” scams.

“Don’t let them guilt you or pressure you into making moves or transferring money that quickly,” Rulison said. “It’s very important to note the IRS, your law enforcement agency, Social Security Administration, will never contact you by phone. Once they do have them on the phone, they intimidate them, they threaten them, saying; ‘do not hang up with me, do not hang up and call my work to verify who I am.'”

Always hang up and call the police. No legitimate caller will ask for gift cards or wire transfers.

Tracking wire transfers or Bitcoin scams can be next to impossible.

“It’s like a spider web, um, a little bit of it goes into this account, this account, this account, this account, and from there even more accounts, and it just becomes virtually impossible for us to track,” Rulison said. “And, when we eventually do get to a wallet, it’s overseas, and we don’t get cooperation from any law enforcement agencies outside of the US.”

According to a 2022 Elder Fraud report by the FBI, 88,000 seniors lost $3.1 billion to scammers nationwide. Florida is second only behind California, with over $328 million stolen. The report also shows that cryptocurrency scams fueled an 84% increase in victims and money lost from 2021 to 2022.

“I made the wire transfer foolishly. I admit that was a dumb thing to do, but I did it,” Seiler said. “Don’t open (suspicious) emails ever.”

Seiler hopes her story will help others avoid making the same mistakes she did. The $79,500 was nearly her entire retirement savings. Her daughter created a GoFundMe account for anyone who wants to help Seiler get back on her feet.