Criminals attack suffering brain cancer patient, steal $450,000 – and why we need a safer Internet

Some stories just make me more angry than others.  You all know that the Internet is crawling with criminals out there looking for vulnerable people — widows, the elderly, children.  There are, incredibly, people who go even lower than that. Criminals are actively searching for very sick people, cancer patients with diminished faculties, so they can exploit them. I know because I spent the past two weeks talking to the family of Matthew West.

Listen to episode one | Listen to episode 2

Matthew was diagnosed with a rare and fatal form of brain cancer four years ago, but the disease took a turn for the worse this fall. Partially paralyzed, suffering from brain fog, and in a great deal of pain, he went looking for relief online. And on the other end of the keyboard, the worst kind of internet criminals were looking for someone just like Matt. His older brother, Justin, so close to Matt that Mom calls him Matt’s second mom, is a Perfect Scam longtime listener, and he reached out to me to talk about the family ordeal on LinkedIn recently (which I encourage any of you to do). Justin wanted to share the story because he feels it’s just so important that people know how far criminals will go, how low they will go, to find vulnerable people.

Matthew went online looking for anything that might ease his pain and anxiety as he enters what could very well be the last few months or even weeks of his life.  He found people promising relief via recreational drugs like hallucinogenic mushrooms, which are currently being studied by reputable research centers as potential treatments for cancer patients. But when he tried to buy them, he was instead flooded with messages from criminals pretending to be law enforcement. They said he was in a lot of trouble and demanded payments so he could avoid jail time.  Within a few weeks, Matthew had sold investments and sent $450,000 worth of cryptocurrency to a set of online criminals.  What’s worse, that money was intended to pay for his end-of-life care — and any leftovers were to be devoted to Matthew’s five-year-old nephew, who suffers from a rare seizure disorder. (You can learn more about the foundation researching the child’s disease at KCNT1Epilepsy.org.)

There are so many tragic elements to this story, but one I can’t help but focus on involves how tech companies enable crimes like this against vulnerable people. Matthew listens to podcasts and music on his phone, and keeps in touch with friends, like all of us. To someone facing such a grave illness,  his gadgets are his lifeline. Imagine trying to face down dark days and nights without access to the Internet. Everything “lives” in the Cloud now — emails, chat tools, even most music.  Of course, when Matthew’s family discovered these crimes, they had to take away his smartphone — his connection to the world.

In my work at Duke University, I’m helping create a platform accountability project designed to force large tech firms to think more about the negative impact their tools have on vulnerable people. The ideas can sometimes sound a bit esoteric.  But when I thought about how hard it is to give Matthew access to the digital world, to his lifeline during his darkest days, the ideas crystallized for me.  We need to make the Internet safe for Matthew and people like him. Safe for brain cancer patients, for lonely windows, for teenagers, for women who get harassed.  We’ve failed so far.  We need to try harder.

To learn more about the Duke project, you can listen to my recent Debugger podcast, called Defending Democracy (and us!) from Big Tech and https://bobsullivan.net/DefendingDemocracy

Listen to episode one | Listen to episode 2

 

 

 

 

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About Bob Sullivan 1589 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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