CLEVELAND — You're probably among thousands across Ohio receiving fraudulent phone calls claiming a virus is threatening your computer or warning of serious problems involving your social security account.
While many instantly recognize a scam, thousands of others are falling victim to a relentless effort by fraudsters who succeed in swindling thousands of dollars from victims tricked by persuasive and often threatening messages.
Last year, we found similar scams hit 718,000 victims across the country and fleeced victims out of $44.8 million.
So who's behind it and how does it really work?
Our investigation uncovered how a 54-year-old disabled man in Westlake went from being victimized to cracking a nationwide scam.
In this case, the victim was swindled out of $23,000 after receiving a call claiming a virus had infected his computer and required immediate repairs.
It was all a lie, but scammers managed to take control of the computer and eventually his bank account.
Ultimately, a caregiver alerted Westlake police, who are being credited with leading federal investigators to crack a nationwide scam that included not only bogus computer repairs, but also threats to others by deceiving them into believing their social security was at risk.
Our investigation gathered police reports, federal investigative records and court documents that reveal who's behind it and how it worked.
They led us to a call center in India where thousands of calls are placed to Ohio and across the country every day.
In the Westlake case, court documents reveal call center phone numbers are changed to appear as if they are local.
The victim was instructed to wrap $10,000 in "bubble wrap and foil" to avoid detection, then ship it to an address in South Carolina.
But police were waiting, and arrested 35-year-old Mehulkumar Patel and his wife when the shipment arrived.
Federal prosecutors pieced together a nationwide scam involving at least 60 victims and nearly $500,000 in losses as a result of the Westlake case.
"Their work was vital to the success of the federal case," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jolee Porter.
Patel and his wife pleaded guilty after profiting from the scam by enjoying expensive trips to New York City and Disney theme parks in Orlando, expensive jewelry, a big screen TV and a new car.
But other, similar scams continue to bombard unsuspecting Ohioans.
Last month, a Cleveland Heights victim was taken for $4,000.
A check of a Better Business Bureau "Scamtracker" reveals dozens more.
One potential victim told us he "gets five or six calls a day" from scammers claiming there are serious problems with his social security account and he would need to repay funds.
In some cases, calls can be spoofed, changing the number the call is coming from to appear like it's originating from a local number.
To combat the explosion in government imposter scams, the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General is launching "Slam The Scam Day" March 4 to raise public awareness.
"The Social Security Administration will never call you out of the blue about your account," warns Monica Vaca, Associate Director of the FTC's Consumer Protection Division.
Both the AARP and Better Business Bureau have issued similar warnings and valuable advice on how to recognize and prevent becoming a victim.