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Internet Fraud Targets Elderly

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 year.

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 $388.

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,” says Edwards.

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 address.

“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 on.

“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 says.

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 rarely recovered.

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 to achieve.

“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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