Scott’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Sometimes, no one was there. Other times, it was one of those annoying recorded messages you have to listen to because it’s from your bank or someone else you know. Meanwhile, his brokerage account was being emptied and the fraud unit couldn’t get through.
Sounds like a Grisham novel – but it isn’t. It’s just one of the scams the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center alerted consumers to last year. Established in 2000, IC3 now logs over 25,000 complaints a month.
If you’re thinking Internet fraud is something that happens to someone else, think again. According to IC3’s 2010 annual report, 30- to 39-year-old men have historically been the biggest, um, losers, but that’s changing. As Internet use has increased among women and people of all ages, so has their share of the fraud.
Crimes involving either sellers being stiffed by buyers, or a buyers being stiffed by sellers headed the FBI’s 2010 hit list.
Other top Internet scams on the FBI list involved:
1. Criminals impersonating FBI agents to defraud victims
2. Identity theft
3. Crimes that targeted or were facilitated by computer networks and devices
4. Work-at-home ‘opportunities’, fraudulent sweepstakes and contests, and similar schemes
Scammers know that desperate people do desperate things. So it’s not surprising that complaints during 2009 and 2010 were up 30 percent over the prior two-year period.
While the perps are rarely found, among those who were, nearly 75 percent were male and more than half were based in California, Florida, New York, Texas, District of Columbia, and Washington. Outside the U.S., the United Kingdom, Nigeria, and Canada accounted for the largest number of Internet scoundrels.
Sad to say, you can’t even trust your loved ones. No, they’re probably not trying to involve you in a crime, but an e-mail from them may be. IC3 reports that by hijacking e-mail and social networking accounts, cyber criminals can turn your network into a money machine. In the typical ruse, your friends receive an urgent e-mail from you – actually, it only appears to be you. You’ve been robbed while on vacation and you’re in desperate need of cash. Believing it really is you, they rush to your aid and send money.
When IC3 and other watchdog agencies spot a recurring scam, they issue a special alert. Here’s the 2010 lineup:
- Mystery/secret shopper schemes
- Counterfeit check schemes targeting U.S. law firms
- Haitian and Chilean relief fraud
- Rental and real estate scams
- Telephone attacks used to cover financial fraud
- Requests for help from someone who’s ‘stranded’
- Fraudulent sweepstake / lottery winner notifications
- Payday loan collection calls
So what can you do to protect yourself from cyber crime?
1. Use strong passwords (i.e. the longer the better; use a combination of letters, numbers, symbols, and small and large capitals). Change them frequently, particularly on your financial accounts. Avoid using a standard pattern that can be easily broken if someone learns a few of your passwords. Consider using a random password generator. Be vigilant about protecting them.
2. Check your credit card statement carefully and dispute anything you don’t recognize. Some criminals start with a small charge to see if you’re paying attention.
3. Never enter financial information – including your social security number, drivers license, or credit card or bank account number on a Web address that doesn’t begin with ‘https’. Never e-mail that information to anyone. And never give it to someone you don’t know.
4. Set your Web browser and e-mail preferences to alert you to addresses that may not be what they appear to be. Look carefully at e-mail addresses: ‘kate.lister@...’ may be someone pretending to be ‘katelister@...’.
5. Check your credit report at least once a year to make sure no one is fraudulently using your name. You’re entitled to a free one annually from each of the top three credit reporting agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com. (Just watch out for the upsells.)
6. Make sure the junior and senior Web users in your family know how to protect themselves.
If you are the victim of an Internet crime, or even if you spot one without falling for it, report it to ICT. They read and log every report. While your single incident may not seem significant, it may help ICT spot patterns of fraud. With a little luck, the combination of many anonymous tips like yours may just bring a cyber criminal to some real world justice.