Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Increase in Scams Attributed to Economy

I just finished reading an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal by M. P. McQueen, which suggests that the bear market is creating a bull market for fraudsters. According to the numerous experts cited in the article, the reason for this is economic gloom and doom with a healthy dose of anxiety.

This shouldn't be surprising because gloom, doom, and anxiety make effective social engineering tools that can be used to part people and businesses from their money.

The article references phishing expeditions that lead to fake Web sites — which often spoof a financial institution or government entity — and entice people into giving up enough of their personal details to drain their financial resources. It also mentions that some of these sites leave behind malicious software on a person's machine, which steal all these details automatically.
Also mentioned is the use of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), caller-ID spoofing and cell phone technology to mount texting and vishing attacks. Vishing is merely another method of tricking people to give up personal and financial information via the telephone. In these attacks, the caller ID is spoofed to make it appear as if it is coming from a legitimate institution.

Apparently telephone technology is being used to commit other types of crimes, too. Many of our 911 centers cannot identify spoofed calls coming from computers using VoIP technology. This has led to S.W.A.T. teams being tricked into deploying in full battle gear to residential neighborhoods when no emergency existed. Of course, businesses use the same technology to trick people who have caller ID into picking up their telephones. You can even buy a card to do this at will from any telephone right over the Web.

It sometimes amazes me how much irresponsible technology there is out there, which is being sold legally. There are even Web sites, with disclaimers, that specialize in making this technology available to the general public. Of course, there are also complete DIY (do-it-yourself) phishing kits being sold over the Internet. Some of these even come with tech support. The phishing kits are illegal, but can be found for sale in chat rooms if you know where to look for them. Sadly, the truth is that these chat rooms aren't very hard to find. The fine line between legitimate enterprise and scams is often a little blurry.

The WSJ article quotes a lot of experts, including Gartner, the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, who all seem to agree that scams are on the rise. An interesting phenomenon called out were small fraud charges being found on accounts. I guess taking small amounts, which might be mistaken for bank fees, is a good way to stay under the radar. A lot of people don't realize how many small fees are being charged to their account and it can be quite confusing at times. I guess the crooks are trying to make themselves look like bankers (speculation) and it's probably a good time for all of us to review our statements, carefully.

Speaking of fees, which are used as revenue streams by a lot of businesses, the WSJ put out another article this entitled, "In the Fight Against Bill Creep, Every Extra Fee Is the Enemy." Besides being on the look out for cyber scammers, this article points out other reasons it is smart to review our financial statements with a keen eye these days.

Another notable trend in the past 12 months is executives being targeted. In this trend, specific people within organizations are being targeted and tricked into downloading malicious software on machines. In one of these scams last April, the targets were led to believe they were being subpoenaed to testify in federal court.

Last, but not least, the article points out that job scams are on the rise. It's a well established fact that job sites from Monster to Craigslist have scammers operating on them to recruit people to launder money, cash bogus financial instruments or give up all their personal and financial information. Adding fuel to this fire, it was disclosed recently that Monster.com had been hacked.

Capping off this interesting article — which is a pretty good recap of recent scam activity — is Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum pointing out that scammers have learned how to use "spell check." In the past, one of the best ways to identify a scam was it's lack of proper spelling and grammar. While the scammers might have have learned to use spell check, it might also point out that there are more and more people out of work (with better grammar skills), who are becoming scammers.

The WSJ quoted a lot of experts that agree with them that scam activity is on the rise. Another interesting read supporting this (not mentioned in their article) is the recent report that was commissioned by McAfee. This report points to all the unsecured data out there that is fueling the rise in cyber crime. They estimate, at this point, that the financial implications have reached $1 trillion. They also have some interesting information about social engineering and how it is being currently used to commit scams in the current economic environment in another set of articles on their main site.

In my opinion, it makes sense that scams of all kinds are on the rise. There is a lot of confusion going on and people are getting desperate. It might be desperation that is causing more people to get involved in scams on both sides of the fence. For the majority of us, who just want to ride these times out and survive the mayhem, the best thing to probably do is be extra diligent in our financial matters and use a little good old fashioned common sense.

Having dealt with a few scammers in my life, I've found that most of them aren't the most intelligent people around. The best thing to do is to think carefully before jumping in anything of a financial nature these days.