Purchase Story

Online Crime: Computer Column #352

Computer Column #352

It has been more than a year (see February 2017, p. 24-E, column #338) since we discussed online crime in its many forms. The fraudsters continue to find ways to cheat us.

Getting statistics on online crime is not easy. IC3, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov), says that in 2016 it received 298,728 complaints from victims who lost a total of $1.45 billion. This count has remained relatively constant over the years. However, underreporting is likely since people do not like to admit they were conned. IC3 estimates that only 15% of Internet fraud victims report the crime.

The IC3 website includes a 28-page report of well-presented statistics (https://pdf.ic3.gov/2016_IC3Report.pdf) worth looking at. Residents of New York, Florida, Texas, and California were the biggest losers. Losses increased with age: victims over 60 lost almost twice as much as those between ages 30 and 40.

The largest single take is from scams targeting businesses working with foreign suppliers or businesses that regularly perform wire money transfers. These are usually large commercial operations. However, antiques dealers and collectors occasionally buy from overseas suppliers. It is difficult to know the reliability of these sources and almost impossible to get satisfaction if fraud occurs. A picture of an offered item is no protection; pictures of almost anything are easy to download from the Internet. Online auctions and trading sites try to make transactions safe, but they are not foolproof.

The second-largest take is from confidence games, including those involving romantic sites. A victim may correspond for years with someone with whom they see eye-to-eye on everything from Chinese porcelain to choice of wine. Then, an appeal for money arrives. It is difficult to break off a relationship into which so much time and feeling was invested.

Identity theft is on everyone’s mind these days. There are services that promise to protect your identity, but not all lawyers and investment counselors are convinced of the effectiveness. Discuss any such service with trusted advisers. It is more important to choose good passwords, have an up-to-date operating system and virus software, mistrust appeals that appear to be from companies you know, and not download free software without evidence of its safety.

Never click on a link on a website or an e-mail link unless you completely trust the source. URLs ending in “.php” are dangerous. They start a program on a web server that can affect your computer. Files with standard MS Office endings such as “.doc” or “.docx” are also suspect if a dialogue box pops up saying your MS Office is out-of-date and telling you how to enable “VBA Macros.” (A macro is a tiny piece of software written by a user.) VBA Macros were once a regular part of Office; Microsoft now disables VBA Macros by default because they can be so dangerous. They are usually only enabled within a company or organization.

The ending “.pps” or “.ppsm” means a slideshow generated by Microsoft. Recently, malignant software has been found that can be added to such slideshows and is triggered by hovering over hyperlinked text and images in a slide.

Another identity-stealing ploy is an e-mail or dialogue box pretending to be from a trusted source—your bank or loan company, Internet service provider, Amazon, or a large company everyone recognizes. One possible message says you need to click to sign on and verify the account. Doing so gives away the user name and password. The first step is to hover the mouse cursor over the link. The real link URL will appear. If it is not immediately recognizable as the company’s URL or has the company name buried within gobbledegook, it is phony. The safest step is to always log on to the company’s website as you usually would to see if a problem really exists.

The same thing can occur in civil matters. Do not reply directly to a notification of overdue taxes, a traffic fine, an overdue bill, or failure to show for jury duty. Contact the agency or company instead. Beware of any request to pay a fee in advance. Do not pay a bill unless you know you ordered the item. Fraudsters send out thousands of phony dunning notices hoping someone will pay without thinking.

Offers of loans at low rates are also common. The AARP Bulletinfor January-February 2018 warns that military veterans or their spouses are often targets. They end up giving away their pensions. Lists of veterans are easy for fraudsters to obtain.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center or IC3 of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation actively pursues cyber criminals.

Phony investment schemes are also common. An e-mail will say that some small stock is going to go sky-high in the near future. Investing in the stock is a sure thing—that is, a sure waste of money. Requests for charity donations can be fraudulent. Give through agencies you know are honest and do not waste your money. Some use as little as 5% of donations for the proclaimed charitable purpose.

Online real estate deals are right up there in the IC3 list of frauds. Frequent news stories tell of buying or renting a house online and finding it occupied by someone who knows nothing of the transaction. Vacation rentals or time-sharing arrangements are just as chancy.

It is hard to believe the old 419 money laundering fraud still catches victims. An e-mail will say you have been chosen to help a deposed national ruler or the spouse of a deceased ruler get a huge amount of money out of the nation. All you need to do is send some money to prove goodwill. The scheme goes back to 1920 when postal mail or telegrams were used. Yet this crime accounted for 15% of the online fraud reported to IC3 in 2016. The name of this hoary fraud is a reference to article 419 of Nigeria’s criminal code, which makes it illegal there.

Federal income tax is a favorite of fraudsters. (This does not refer to someone filing their own fraudulent tax return, which is a different story.) Confusion over the major changes in U.S. tax law this year makes outlandish claims easier. Be aware that the IRS or FBI will not make initial contact by Internet or telephone. They will not threaten you over these media either. Ignore demands for immediate payment by money order. The IRS does not work that way.

Another form of tax fraud is a person filing a fake income tax return online to claim your refund before you file (www.time.com/money/3709141/stolen-tax-refund/). The criminals are often outside the U.S. File as early as reasonably possible. Use a local or online tax service to file your return online. Every year more double-checks, including a PIN, are added to make false filings more difficult. The IRS may eventually give you the refund, but it may take many months and complicate next year’s return. Be aware that this fraud may be an indication that you have had a major identity theft.

If all this sounds like doom and gloom, that is a good thing to have in mind when online. Every unusual happening should trigger a “heads up.” The Internet is a wonderful thing—but so are automobiles, power tools, and firearms, which also can be dangerous.


Originally published in the May 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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