August 14, 2020
We all use the internet for just about everything these days. We shop, we read the news, we catch up with friends, and a lot more via the internet, online. As we spend more time on the internet, so do criminals. According to the 2017 Internet Crime Report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov), Americans lost more than $1.4 billion due to hackers, fraudsters, and online scams. So, if you are a victim of an internet (online) scam, who are you going to call? This best approach is to notify the local police and obtain an official police report and also record your incident with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Ultimately, you are responsible for your online safety and the safety of your family members. Be aware of the numerous and pervasive threats that exist.
The majority of internet crimes are conducted by “invisible” criminals. You only interact via e-mails, links, malware, or social media. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Homeland Security offer information and resources on the types of crimes and the actions you can take to protect you and your family. It takes your awareness and reporting of incidents to help law enforcement track down and prosecute the people responsible. In the end, your reports of internet crimes will help prevents crimes like this from continuing in the future.
What is an Internet crime or online crime?
The term "internet crime" refers to any crime committed via the internet or while online. These types of crimes may occur from a personal computer, tablet, or smartphone. The most common internet crimes are —
- Shopping scams, which are by far, the most common internet crimes. With these scams, a thief convinces you to send them goods, but the thief never pays, or a thief convinces you to pay for goods that are never sent to you.
- Data breaches, in which your personal data is stolen from a secure location, personal computer, or mobile device. These have become the most common in recent years, with big companies like Target and Equifax losing personal financial information, that lost information can be used to target individuals via phishing or other scams.
- “Phishing” refers to when someone "fishes" you to obtain your personal information and provide it to the fraudster. These scams involve emails, links to web sites, file downloads, or other messages that claim to be from an official source, asking for personal or financial information. Phishing via e-mail, often called e-mail compromise, has become the primary means of account takeover and computer compromise resulting in over $676 million in annual losses to individuals and businesses.
- Fraudulent fees, where a scammer asks you to pay a fee to get some type of award or sweepstakes at a later time. Often, they'll say you've won a contest or could earn a commission for helping facilitate a money transfer. These types of scams will require you to send money or provide a method of payment – but you’ll not see an award or sweepstakes, and your money is gone.
- Identity theft is a difficult and time-consuming crime to deal with due to the big data breaches, personally identifiable information (PII) is being sold on the dark web, and social media hacks have made this type of crime much more common. Identity theft happens when a scammer gets enough personal information to open credit card accounts, bank accounts, or get loans in your name, ruining your credit and saddling you with debt.
- Harassment and threats of violence can happen online and offline — both are crimes.
- Employment scams offer seemingly legitimate jobs which can lead to a couple of different scams. Either the "employee" is required to pay money, upfront, and has their money stolen, or they're unknowingly criminals facilitate money laundering.
- Email account compromises happen whenever a scammer gains access to an email account. Scammers then use the account to send emails that appear to be legitimate, often by initiating wire transfers so they can make off with the cash.
- Confidence fraud happens when a scammer convinces you to trust them — and then uses that trust to get money, personal or financial information for identity theft, or other valuable items. This is a common scam which may include any of the following, romance scams, online dating scams, sales of used cars, trailers, boats, RV’s, etc. If the deal involves you sending money to the “seller” or a “transportation agent”, then beware you may never see your money or the sales item, again. Remember, if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.
- Credit card fraud is a crime most of us are familiar with because it is increasing at an alarming rate in the U.S. This occurs when a thief steals your credit card number and uses it to rack up big charges via online transactions or purchases. This may include the criminal obtaining a credit card using your PII and running up charges to leave you responsible and surprised.
These are hardly the only crimes you may encounter. Both technical support fraud and ransomware incidents are on the rise, and either can scam victims out of a lot of money. Technical support fraud typically involves someone contacting the victim to offer computer help, telling you your computer has a virus or asking for remote access to the victim's computer. This gives the scammer access to your personal information, allowing them to gain information on your bank accounts or steal your identity. Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts your computer’s data files and requires you to pay a ransom to unlock it — though crooks may not unlock the data even if you pay, meaning you could still lose all of your files. Backups of sensitive or important data should be performed regularly to maintain online safety.
What should you do if you're a victim of one of these crimes? Report them.
Where to report online crimes
It can be complicated to report these crimes because different agencies are in charge of handling them. However, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is a good place to start. The IC3 will review your complaint and pass it to the appropriate agency for you.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also investigates many kinds of online crime, including scams and identity theft. The FTC can't resolve cases for you but will report them to the appropriate agencies and give you information on the next steps you can take. The FTC also has a page just for reporting identity theft and creating a recovery plan.
Still not sure who to contact? The Department of Justice has a list of agencies responsible for different kinds of online crime.
How to avoid online crimes
Some online crime you simply can't escape, such as big companies being hacked — which puts your personal and financial information at risk even though you haven't done anything wrong. However, good internet habits can help keep you safe. Most importantly, you need to keep your computer and other connected devices in your home secure. Be sure you run an antivirus on your computer, and keep your antivirus software up to date, as well as installing security patches when they're released. Both will help make it much more difficult for hackers to get into your computer.
But even if online thieves can't hack their way into your computer, they can still take advantage of you by convincing you to give them what they want. They might trick you into downloading dangerous software or convince you to give them information with threats or promises — and they are very good at making their messages look legitimate. In both cases, it's all about being careful. Never click on suspicious links or download files from unknown sources. And when someone asks you for money or personal information, be wary of handing it over.
Finally, credit monitoring services and automated alerts from your bank and credit card accounts can help increase awareness. Each of the three major credit bureaus offers products to help with identity theft protection and credit and account monitoring.