1930s bank robber Willy Sutton, when asked why he robbed banks, remarked, “That’s where the money is!” Times have changed since the days of Willy, but if he were alive today internet scamming would be his occupation – that’s where the money is!
307 million! This is the number of Americans connected to the Internet; approximately 92% of the population (Datareportal.com). The study goes on to say that 270 million people have social media accounts. With such activity, protecting information and money is next to impossible.
Some myths we need to dispel: Myth #1 — Scammers are not well educated. Reality – criminals who commit fraud are organized, tech-savvy, and psychology students; they know what motivates us!
Myth #2 – I don’t need to have malware or antivirus software. Reality – all connected systems are vulnerable to access by criminals – Android, Apple, Windows (too many Apple computer users think they are invulnerable).
Myth #3 – I have nothing of value to scammers. Reality – while money and property may come to mind first when we think of value, we must consider that value also resides in information. Data theft opens the door to credit card accounts, medical insurance fraud, tampering, and the practice of holding information for ransom. Criminals constantly profit from the data they steal. Myth #4 – I’m not concerned about some youngster huddled in a basement wearing a hoodie. Reality – stop thinking in terms of “lone rangers” to earn a few bucks or harass you. Today, we deal with organized crime operations around the world.
We need to adjust our thinking to the reality of the IT world. So why is computer fraud so appealing? Computers are no longer luxury items; they are cheap commodities in the hands of millions. Many people using computers, especially those with little experience, have limited knowledge of the device beyond the use of specific applications (Google, Facebook, Weather, News, Email). Finally, given the many data breaches and personal posts on social media, all the information needed to defraud is readily available from social security numbers, health and insurance numbers, addresses, property records, criminal records, photographs, demographic data. Everything is there and available.
Cyber scams reach us via email, fraudulent websites and pop-ups. Criminals use phantom riches, impersonation, perceived scarcity, urgency, projected authority, and intimidation to trigger an emotional response from the intended victim. The keys to self-defense are restraint and focus. Beware of messages conveying urgency or danger. Emotional responses to these motivations are often not rational, so breathe, step back, and think before you react. Read e-mail messages carefully before reacting or responding. Is receiving the message logical? For example, does the message mention
a purchase that you are sure has never been made? Does the message tell you about problems with accounts? Are you told to act immediately? Is the message from a government agency (you will not receive messages from government agencies that deal with personal matters)? These are red flags! Others – are there spelling and grammatical errors in the text? Does the message pose a “too good to be true” offer? Does the reply to or web address include unrelated language (e.g. you receive an email from Mastercard regarding your account but the return address is a gmail account or the website appears to be Walmart but the address is not www.walmart.com)?
Staying out of a scammer’s trap isn’t easy, but following a few simple practices will protect you: 1) Never click on an email link unless you have a positive ID for the sender; 2) Never provide personal information to anyone whose identity cannot be independently verified; 3) Never reply to a message using the contact information in the message without verification; 4) Never click “Unsubscribe” in a message unless you can verify the sender. Clicking “Unsubscribe” will almost ensure receiving more messages. (This multi-part series will address some of the realities of fraud and scams we face on the internet).
Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. Questions, concerns? Contact [email protected]