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Online scamming as prolific as holiday deals

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Mike Heine
December 14, 2007

Happy holidays!


Now pay your bill for that $1,000-a-night hotel room in Paris. Or that $2,000 big-screen TV. And those steak dinners at fancy restaurants.


Wait a minute. You didn’t buy any of that stuff this year, yet it still showed up on your credit card statement?


Sounds like you might be the victim of ever-increasing Internet scams.


E-mail and Internet scams seem to spike during the holidays, hoping to latch onto the same things legitimate retailers want—buying power and the urge to spend.


“The idea is to take advantage of the hurried holiday shopper, the person who has more on their plate or a lot on their plate and might not be as careful this time of year,” said Craig Butterworth, communications specialist with the National White Collar Crime Center.


Unsolicited “phishing” e-mails popping up in your mailbox, purportedly from credit card companies, banks or even stores, are just as frequent during the holidays, but they are clicked on more regularly, said Greg Donewar, manager of the Internet Crime Complaint Center.


“We see an increase because Internet use is higher,” Donewar said, noting that e-commerce is proportionately higher. “There doesn’t seem to be any one scam that is more prolific than another.”


Phishing

Phishing scams send out millions of e-mails, requesting a reader to supply personal information, often under the guise of an incredible offer or an emergency that needs immediate attention, Butterworth said.


“Excitement is how bad guys get you to do the wrong thing,” said Peter Cassidy, secretary general of the Anti-Phishing Working Group. “Excitement is what manipulates you.”


Usually, spam filters on e-mail programs will catch them, but some always seem to find their way into a regular e-mail box or are viewed by someone as legitimate. If someone falls for it, that’s it.


“It doesn’t cost a thing to send out millions of these things. All they need is one person to respond and they have that person’s ID,” said Glen Loyd, public information officer for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.


“The Internet is a pipeline, a cheap pipeline, for criminals in other countries to rip us off. They’re ripping us off in our little Wisconsin communities. That’s happening right now.”


Phony auctions

Another thing happening during the holidays is the number of phony shoppers or sellers on online auction sites, such as e-Bay, Butterworth said.


E-Bay has built-in safeguards to try and prevent scammers but in the holiday rush to buy that treasured gift, it’s easy to be duped.


People purport to have an item for sale, accept a winning bid and collect money, but never send an item, Butterworth said. Or, they’ll use worthless checks or stolen credit cards to pay for items.


“The rule of thumb is to thoroughly investigate the seller and the seller’s reputation,” Butterworth said. “If it’s not where you think it should be compared to other sellers, then look to someone else for the same item.


“The majority of people who do business on e-Bay are reputable. Every once in a while you find someone who goes in there and are out to swindle people.”


Greeting viruses

Another popular holiday scam is online greeting cards.


Thousands have received e-mails that ask a reader to click on a link to receive a holiday greeting sent from “a friend.” Doing so often will download a virus that can obtain a computer user’s passwords and personal information and send them to someone else unbeknownst to the computer owner, said Dave Jevans, chairman of the Anti-Phishing Working Group.


“Just by visiting the Web site, they exploit your computer or your browser,” Jevans said. “It installs ‘key loggers.’ When you visit certain sites, they start recording your passwords then. It’s crucial that people have anti-virus software that is updating every day.”


Staying safe

The easiest safeguard is to never respond to unsolicited e-mails from unknown sources. Don’t even open them, experts say.


No banks, credit card companies or stores would solicit personal identifying information, especially over the Internet, Butterworth said.


If you do fall victim, notify the Internet Crime Complaint Center, the Wisconsin Consumer Protection hotline, your local banks and credit card companies.


“Many credit card companies will forego the investment, but you have to report the loss,” Butterworth said.


e-Enforcement

Informing local police can help, but tracking and arresting purveyors of Internet crimes is difficult.


Many times, cyber crooks are overseas, where American law enforcement officers don’t have jurisdiction.


“Everybody from the state and local governments to international law enforcement is playing a role in trying to stem what is a growing problem,” FBI Public Affairs Officer Paul Bresson said.


Cyber crimes can originate in one country, be routed through computers in another and victimize people in a third country, Bresson said.


Authorities tend to lean their efforts toward large, organized cyber crime gangs or syndicates, but it only takes one person to click a mouse and potentially victimize thousands, Cassidy said.


“It’s really hard to tell who’s where and who’s doing what,” Cassidy said. “Is this attack that’s going on here, are they weekend warriors in Brazil scamming a local credit union, or is it a large gang?


“Putting together the pieces is really hell.”


Slow down

The best thing to do to stay safe and protect yourself is don’t give scammers the opportunity to have a victim, Cassidy said.


“Really just slow down,” he said. “An extra 2 to 5 minutes of reflection on stuff is small change to pay compared to the problems you can get into if you hand over your credentials or personal information to the wrong people.”



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