The rate of Internet fraud is growing
exponentially, as con artists follow growing numbers of their
traditional victims online.
This Christmas season, an estimated 45 % of
online shoppers will be surfing the cybermalls for the first time,
according to a recent study by Internet research company Active
Research. Another Internet researcher, TNS Intersearch, reported
that 57% of current online shoppers made their first purchase this
And seniors are among the biggest spenders.
Research by Nielsen//NetRatings indicates that the number of
Internet users aged 55 and over grew 38 % over the past year. And
Active Research found that online holiday spending by this group
averages $521 per person, compared with the general average of
All this adds up to a happy hunting ground for
fraudsters, says Richland, Washington-based computer forensics
expert, Blake Edwards of Digital Evidence, Inc.
“Some statistics indicate that there is already
12 times as much fraud taking place on the Internet as off it,”
Sergeant Steve Beltz, supervisor of the computer
forensics unit at Washington State Patrol, agrees that the problem
is growing faster than law enforcers can keep pace. “Nothing has
changed in the past few centuries: it’s the same old tricks in a
new medium,” he comments.
“In the past, trusting elderly people would get
a knock on the door from people claiming to be roofing contractors
with unbeatable offers, who walked off with their wallets. Now
they’re getting caught in cyberspace.”
Comments Edwards: “It is just so easy. With
very little effort and no financial outlay, a con artist could
create a phony web page, claiming to have affiliations with
legitimate organizations, and offering, for example, to protect
people from Internet fraud.
“They could send out a huge batch of e-mails
inviting people to visit the site to learn how not to be a victim.
They could promise online access to counselors and a toll-free
phone number, and claim expertise in tracking down people who
fraudulently use credit cards.
“And all the victim would have to do is maybe
pay a small fee and provide some personal details, including their
credit card number so that it could be ‘tracked’, and another
great scam would be set to make a lot of money in a very short
space of time.”
But it is possible to become street-wise. “Make
sure you’re dealing with a real person, and deal with reputable
companies,” says Beltz.
“If you don’t know the company, check them
out – e-mail a request for a phone number, and then call. You
need to get through to a live person who can give you a legitimate
“If it sounds like a genuine deal, call the
Better Business Bureau at the attorney general’s office in their
area to confirm that the business does exist, and find out whether
it has any record of problems.”
Before placing the order, Edwards adds, read the
purchase documents carefully to make sure you fully understand the
terms of the sale, with regard to taxes, shipping costs, and so
“If you’re paying by credit card, it’s
generally best to use Visa, American Express, or MasterCard –
they are more likely to stop payment.
“And keep hard copies of all the records –
the online receipt, the web page showing the purchase, and any
correspondence. That way, if you don’t get what you paid for,
you have something to help the police get started,” Edwards
Scott Pancoast, investigator for Washington state
attorney general’s office and a computer forensics expert, says
tracking down e-criminals can be a slow process, and the money is
With some 50,000 police organizations across the
nation, outdated systems of communication between them and, in
some cases, a tradition of resenting any intrusion onto their turf
by police from other jurisdictions, cooperation can be difficult
“I can get a complaint about auction fraud from
someone in Seattle, requiring me to serve a search warrant on an
auction house in Arizona,” says Pancoast.
“If the auction house won’t cooperate, I have
to get our public prosecutor to persuade their public prosecutor
to get one of their judges to issue a search warrant for their
local police to serve. In the end we almost always get our man,
but the whole process can take months.”
And although Pancoast says such scams commonly
amount to $3-4,000 at a time, many involve even smaller sums. The
speed and efficiency of a cyber-scam, coupled with the sheer
numbers of potential victims online, mean that phony deals of $100
or less can add up fast to a lot of money.
“It becomes an issue of economics. The police
don’t have the resources to investigate every little $20 theft,
especially if it takes you across state lines,” adds Edwards.
“In a way it’s the perfect kind of crime –
not because it’s that difficult to track, but because it’s
often too small to seem worth the trouble.”
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