by Brad Moon | May 31, 2014 4:00 am
The Internet can be your friend. You can save money and have products automatically show up at your door. You can find out what your friends are doing in an instant. You can whip out your iPhone and use Google Maps to find the nearest restaurant, then check Yelp to see if it’s any good.
But there’s a dark side to the Internet, too.
Scam artists, petty thieves and organized crime rings located all over the world have Internet access too. And thanks to the web, their potential pool of targets has expanded to billions of people. While some of these schemes are quite elaborate, they don’t have to be particularly clever in their attempts to separate people from their money because with such a huge pool of potential targets, there are bound to be a few suckers.
But you don’t need to fear the web — after all, it gives us so many great things. Just keep aware don’t let yourself become a victim of a scammer sitting in a basement 3,000 miles away.
There are hundreds of illicit schemes being tracked at any given time (not even cars are immune), but there are some classics that just don’t go away. Here are 10 Internet scams to watch out for.
There are many variations on this theme, but the basic pattern is an email from someone in Nigeria or another distant country reaching out for your help in accessing a big chunk of cash held in a foreign bank. They might pose as someone with a terminal illness, someone who shares your last name or — the classic — a Nigerian prince.
Whatever the pitch, they need your help to access that money (which obviously does not exist). All you have to do is supply personal details or wire them money to help with the proceedings/pay taxes/pay for a lawyer, for which you will receive a large percentage of the mother lode deposit.
What to do: Do not respond to these emails. Once these scammers engage with a potential victim, they’re skilled at drawing them into the net. How bad can it get? An employee at a Brazilian bank lost $242 million (yes — that’s millions of dollars) of the bank’s money after falling for a 419 scam.
Phishing scams are what they sound like — fishing. But the fish is you (and your financial data), and the bait is an official-sounding request from what appears to be a financial institution or recognized website asking you to log in and verify personal information.
Phishers buy email addresses by the millions, create fake websites that look legitimate, then fire off an emails requesting the respondent to log in and update account details or credit card numbers. However, the link provided will send you to a fake website, and when you enter your details, you’ve just handed them over to the criminals.
Phishing attacks are on the rise, and in 2012, these Internet scams took victims to the tune of $1.5 billion. In one case in the U.K., a retiree was tricked into entering her online bank account details using a fake website, after which the phishers were able to empty her $1.6 million in life savings before anyone noticed.
What to do: Watch for unsolicited e-mails that sound threatening — e.g., “your account will be terminated if you don’t act immediately” — address you as “dear customer” instead of using your name, include typos (if these criminals ever hire an editor, we’ll be in big trouble), link to odd-sounding URLs or to domain names that lack “https” in the URL (they are not secure).
When in doubt, call the organization requesting your information or check their website directly (not using the link supplied in the email).
With Twitter’s (TWTR) character limitation, URL-shortening services like Bitly and TinyURL are popular. They let someone tweet a website without eating up half the character allotment for a post.
However, URL shortening has led to a new class of Internet scams that relies on the fact that those short links don’t hold much in the way of visual clues to the end destination. So the criminals create a Twitter account, follow someone and tweet a website for them to check out.
The shortened URL takes them to a website loaded with malware — the kind of destination we’ve all (hopefully) learned to avoid.
What to do: If you gain a new Twitter follower, have a look to make sure they’re legit before blindly clicking any shortened links they post. Stock photos, a new account and no followers are reasons to be cautious. If you end up on a suspicious website, it’s time to run antivirus software.
Free Wi-Fi hotspots are great for our mobile world, and many people don’t think twice about connecting to the local coffee shop’s network to enjoy some no-charge web browsing while they get their caffeine fix.
Unfortunately, free Wi-Fi hotspots are a magnet for Internet scams.
All too often, bad guys are lurking nearby. They can create a Wi-Fi network too, and give theirs a name that sounds close enough to the legitimate Wi-Fi hotspot that they fool customers into logging in. If you see “AwesomeFreeStarbuxWiFi” in your network list, that’s not really Starbucks (SBUX) you’re logging into. And everything you do on that fake Starbucks Wi-Fi hotspot could be recorded — keystrokes, websites, passwords, credit card numbers…
What’s really worrisome is that even the real Wi-Fi hotspot could have issues. For example, sniffer attacks can result when someone nearby logs onto the same public network and uses software to eavesdrop on someone else’s browsing activity.
What to do: If you’re going to use public Wi-Fi hotspots, make sure the network you log into is legitimate, confirm that any websites where you might enter confidential information have a URL beginning with “https:” (meaning they are secure and encrypted), use a VPN device (to encrypt all your wireless activity), or just hold off on shopping and paying bills until you’re home on your own secured Wi-Fi network or back on cellular service.
You visit a website and a window pops up warning you that your computer has been infected with a virus. Or you receive an email saying your device has been identified as being the victim of malware.
The good news, you’re told, is that if you click on the provided link, someone scan your system and eradicate the problem.
But when you do so, the “scan” will result in the website installing all sorts of malware on your computer. The result can be anything, from having software broadcasting your every move to advertisers, to key-logging software that records passwords and personal data, or even the ability for the criminals to remotely access the PC and steal private data.
If they’re extra greedy, the Internet scam artists might also ask for your credit card number for a small fee to cover the “virus protection” — that just saves them the extra time needed to grab that information once they have access to your computer.
In another variation, the “antivirus software” installed locks the user’s PC, then they must fork over $100 to unlock it. PC owners in Kentucky were in the news last year after a scareware variation claimed to have found child porn on their PCs and demanded $500 to avoid having authorities contacted.
One scareware company alone netted $100 million from victims before being shut down by the FTC in 2010.
What to do: If you see one of these virus warnings, close the window, don’t click on any links and run a scan using legitimate antivirus software.
This one involves SMS texting, but often starts off as an online scam.
Fraudsters have figured out that people love to waste time online with quizzes, jokes and inspirational messages. The scam in this case involves convincing people to enter their mobile phone number to receive a daily message sent to their device automatically.
The daily messages do indeed arrive daily as promised, but what also arrives is a monthly charge on their mobile bill for premium SMS text services. The typically amount is $9.99 a month — enough to pay off nicely for the scammers (not a bad haul for one bad joke a day) while flying under the radar of many phone owners who simply assume it’s some sort of system access fee.
A nastier variation sees smartphone owners duped into downloading a malicious app that then hijacks their device to send SMS text messages to a premium rate phone number, piling up charges of hundreds of dollars or more before they’re discovered. Android owners are more susceptible to this one since the iPhone is much more locked down in terms of app installation.
What to do: Contact your wireless provider to block any text service you’ve accidentally subscribed to and if your smartphone is texting on its own, time to wipe it down, re-install everything from scratch and consider malware protection.
Who wouldn’t be excited to receive an email telling them they’d won an all-expenses-paid vacation, a new flat-screen TV or an iPad? Or maybe you really got lucky and won the “National Lottery.”
The catch? You’ll be asked to visit a website to claim your prize, and you’ll need to give your credit card number to cover a small fee. No big deal to pay $8.50 in shipping costs to get a $650 iPhone for free, or a $100 processing fee on a $10,000,000 lottery win, right?
Uh … wrong. There is no prize. Especially if you haven’t even entered a contest.
And besides, no real lottery is going to contact winners by email.
Instead of a shipping fee, processing fee or lottery tax, your credit card will quickly be maxed out by the guys running these Internet scams. According to Consumer Reports, fake sweepstakes winner schemes are the sixth-most frequently reported form of fraud.
What to do: Much like the rest of these, don’t click — especially if you don’t remember signing up for any such sweepstakes or drawing in the first place.
Have you ever met this person — the one who almost always has little more than a rudimentary grasp of English but makes the most of it to prove their love for you? Do you believe that she (or he) actually stumbled across you online, knows all about you and has actually fallen head over heels for you?
Heck, who needs dating sites?
Don’t fall for one of these Internet scams. Any photos supplied are undoubtedly fake. Before you know it, you’ll be paying for plane tickets for your online mystery suitor to come to America, but en route there will be challenges that require more and more of your money to overcome.
When your bank account is dry, your relationship will abruptly end, too.
What to do: Use common sense. Clearly this person doesn’t know you, doesn’t love you, and if you read the email closely, they probably don’t even use your name. If you want to find love online, join a dating site. Throw this e-mail in the trash.
One of the classic Internet scams relies on the fact that modern families are often scattered across the globe. You could have a cousin living thousands of miles away that you’ve never even heard of.
Until a kindly stranger emails to inform you of their death and to notify you that all the news is not bad. You see, this long-lost relative was loaded. And they’re leaving all their money to you!
The person who’s contacted you is acting as the dead cousin’s lawyer, and there are a few details to work out before the estate is settled and you receive your windfall. You’ll need to pay them for their hard work in processing the will and tracking you down. Since they’re in another country, there might be some taxes to be paid upfront before the money can be transferred to your account. And there are always other fees. Legalities can be expensive.
Especially when they’re a fraud and there is no dead relative.
The cyber criminal posing as the lawyer will keep coming up with new reasons money has to be fronted until you have no more. At which point, they’ll disappear back into the dark side of the web in search of their next victim.
What to do: Ignore the email. Even supposing you had a long-lost dead relative, any lawyer trying to settle their estate would contact you through official channels such as registered mail, identifying their firm and you by name.
Who doesn’t love shopping? Let me rephrase that: Who doesn’t love shopping when they’re being paid to do the shopping?
A lot of people fall victim to this one, thanks to e-mails or online ads offering then $300 or more per day shopping in stores and providing feedback on their experience.
However, there are upfront training costs to be paid by the victim (after which they never hear back from the Mystery Shopper program), or they might be sent an initial paycheck with instructions to wire part of that money back.
Why would the Mystery Shopper program want a portion returned? Naturally, the check is bogus, and the victim loses the money they sent along with any banking fees associated with the bounced check.
It’s not unusual for victims to be taken for thousands of dollars before they realize they’ve been duped.
What to do: If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Some stores do hire mystery shoppers, but they are through partner agencies or internal departments. These people are not blindly solicited on the Internet. If someone sends you a check asking you to deposit it, then wire or transfer some of it back to them, it’s time to call the police.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities
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