PORTLAND, Ore. — More than 10,000 people had their cars stolen in Portland last year. On average, a vehicle is ripped off every 48 minutes. Scammers have taken notice, and they’re targeting victims of car theft using social media.
“To be victimized is one thing but then to prey on victims is another level of inhumanity. It’s just disgusting,” said Lisa Olson of Eugene, who nearly fell for the scam after her motorhome was stolen.
On June 11, someone ripped off Olson’s 40-foot motorhome near Delta Park, while she and her husband were off watching their sons’ baseball games.
“Never in a million years did the thought cross our mind that it could get stolen,” explained Olson.
Like many others who’ve had their vehicles stolen, Olson scrambled to get the word out by posting photos and a description of her missing motorhome.
“My first step was to jump on social media. Get it on Facebook as fast as I can because the power of social media is incredible,” Olson explained.
Within a few hours, Olson started getting direct messages from complete strangers suggesting she reach out to a company on Instagram that helps recover stolen vehicles. Desperate for help, she did.
The company, using the Instagram profile name @9th_tech claimed to be ethical hackers, who could tap into dozens of surveillance cameras to help look for stolen vehicles. Additionally, 9th_tech claimed it could hack into the speedometer and odometer of a stolen vehicle using “beep location technology.”
“I’m not mechanical,” admits Olson. “I was like, ‘Sounds like something that could probably be done.”
When Olson provided the address where her motorhome was stolen, the so-called hackers sent her an image of the location. When she shared the vehicle’s VIN number, they responded with all kinds of details about the make and model.
It’s information that’s readily available to anyone on the Internet, but in that moment of desperation, it seemed legit. Olson admits, the scheme was convincing.
“He’s like, ‘I have your vehicle location located!” said Olson.
The Eugene woman got suspicious when the so-called hackers asked for payment of $1,500.
“After payment we share the current address of your vehicle,” wrote 9th_tech in an Instagram message.
Olson stopped messaging and didn’t send any money.
Several other people who had their cars stolen in Portland report similar experiences.
“There were about 15 to 20 people who reached out trying to scam me,” said Cody Williams of Portland. He received similar direct messages on Facebook after his car was stolen in February.
“Your mind is not thinking right,” explained Williams. “People are coming at you in your time of desperation.”
The companies claiming to help crime victims use a variety of names and profiles on Instagram.
To better understand how the scheme works, we messaged 9th_tech on Instagram, the same so-called hackers Olson interacted with.
“We recover stolen vehicle via beep location tech and cctv hack,” 9th_tech responded via direct message.
The so-called hackers claimed to have found our vehicle, which was never stolen.
“I just got signals coming from the speedometer and odometer of your vehicle,” the company wrote.
After a string of messages, someone from 9th_tech called using Instagram audio. The co-called hacker declined to provide their name or location. They asked us to pay $500 using wire transfer or cryptocurrency.
When this reporter identified himself and explained why we were calling, the conversation ended abruptly.
“If anybody from Instagram says they are a hacker and can help you find your car, that is not true at all,” warned Titan Crawford, who helps run the PDX Stolen Cars Facebook page. Crawford said these so-called hackers can’t really locate your car using remote cameras or tapping into the speedometer or odometer.
More importantly, Crawford notes there’s no need to pay. Tens of thousands of volunteers are willing to help for free using social media.
“It’s just something we do,” explained Crawford. “We drive to work and we see a vehicle that looks suspicious. We run the plate, confirm it is stolen and then we try to track down the owner.”
“It’s awesome when we help find a vehicle,” explained Crawford.
Volunteers on PDX Stolen Cars and PNW Stolen Cars helped spread the word on Facebook about Olson’s missing motorhome. Within 24 hours, several people spotted it driving around Portland. They reported back, posting updates in real time on Facebook and notified police — who eventually found the 40-foot motorhome abandoned along a residential street in Southeast Portland.
“Throughout this whole thing, the only thing that still makes me emotional is how many good people there were that helped us,” Olson said.
It appears someone had broken into the motorhome, got it started and took it for a joy ride, explained Olson. There were signs of drug use, the inside was pretty trashed and valuables were stolen.
“It’s our second home,” said Olson. “We’re ecstatic to have it back.”