Internet scams top consumer fraud

A new generation of scam artists has taken to the Internet, e-mailing for money, creating look-alike sites, and stealing your personal information.

About half of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's top ten consumer frauds of the year have an Internet connection. But they share a common thread with brick-and-mortar scams, says Howard Beales, director of the agency's consumer protection bureau.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," holds true on the Internet, Beales says.

How to Keep Tabs

Along with its annual fraud tallies, the FTC offers tips on how to avoid these scams and spot a hoax.

"The great thing about the Internet is it's easy to find other information, and what consumers should do is cross-check," Beales says. For example, he says, "If this product is telling you that it is the cure for cancer, then go to the National Cancer Institute's site."

Identity theft again tops the FTC's list, making up 43 percent of the 380,000 complaints lodged into the FTC's Consumer Sentinel database of complaints from government agencies and consumer-protection organizations. Consumers attribute US$343 million in losses to consumer fraud in 2002.

Although many identity theft victims do not know how their identities were stolen, consumers should still be wary of giving out their Social Security numbers or bank account information. If in doubt, you should send an e-mail asking why the information is needed and contact the FTC, says Jay M. Miller, Consumer Sentinel program manager, who focuses on consumer fraud protection.

It is even possible to not know your identity has been stolen if someone is maintaining accounts and working under your name. The FTC suggests checking your credit report, placing passwords on accounts, and asking about information security at work to minimize risk.

Common Scams

Miller says the FTC has also seen an increase in scammers who create look-alike Internet sites to pose as legitimate service providers. For examine, cybercrooks might pose as representatives of America Online, and ask subscribers for identifying information.

Consumers should question any requests for information, he says. They should also remember that even if one credit card is canceled the same information could be used to open new accounts. A checking account number is all someone needs to process information, Beales says.

Internet auction sites also rose as a form of consumer fraud in 2003, with complaints mainly about individuals who use the sites, Miller says.

The Internet also provides the main initial contact for these scams in the form of pop-ups, hyperlinks, and Web sites, with bogus claims being used for 29 percent of the fraud complaints, Beales says. He suggests using a search engine is a safer way to surf the Web.

Another 25 percent of the complaints came from e-mail, like the supposed Nigerian government officials who offer money. The FTC suggests forwarding such letters to the Secret Service e-mail,

Collecting Data

The Internet has revived some old frauds, like chain letters, which were almost dead, Beales says. But like snail mail fraud, originators of spam scams are often very hard to find. Spammers often collect e-mail addresses from postings in chat rooms or online discussions.

But if the FTC can find them, it will investigate spam originators for using fraudulent statements. At least four cases related to spam artists are now pending, Miller says. In fiscal 2002, the FTC handled 44 Internet-related fraud cases.

Also on the increase is theft of PCs and hard drives in order to obtain identifying information, Miller says. He points to a recent break-in at TriWest Healthcare Alliance in Phoenix, where information was stolen about military families.

Also, an increasing amount of identity theft involves insiders selling company information, Beales says.

Consumers can report suspected fraud and identify theft complaints through the FTC Web site or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.

The FTC's full report on leading consumer fraud is available online.

- Malaika Costello-Dougherty writes for the Medill News Service.

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