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Internet is valuable resource for con artists

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AETCNS) -- Scams may have changed, but tried-and-true advice remains -- let the buyer beware, all that glitters is not gold, and if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The Justice Department notes that fraud schemes that have victimized consumers for many years now appear online, offering thieves a faster way to carry out their plans.

Scam artists use e-mail, chat rooms, message boards or Web sites to present fraudulent proposals to prospective victims, conduct fraudulent transactions and transfer the proceeds to financial institutions or others connected with the crime.

With the explosive growth of online commerce, criminals try to present fraudulent schemes in ways that look virtually identical to the goods and services offered by legitimate online merchants.

Keesler Federal Credit Union officials warn sellers to be aware of con artists who respond to online and print classified advertisements for items being sold for more than $500.

The crook poses as a buyer and sends a bogus check or money order in excess of the agreed sales price. He asks the victim to cash the check, keep a portion to cover shipping or other expenses and return the remainder. Sometimes the "buyer" says that he made a mistake in the check amount and asks the seller to return the difference.

Credit union representatives stress there's no legitimate reason for someone who is giving you money to ask you to send money back. Customers are responsible for the checks they deposit, so they should never accept a check or money order for more than the selling price. If a check bounces, the financial institution deducts the amount the amount that was originally credited to the account.

Recently, a Keesler member sought assistance from the Air Force Aid Society in handling the financial fallout from one of these counterfeit check scams, according to acting AFAS officer Jackie Pope.

"This person said other people they knew had been conned in similar scenarios," she said.

The Better Business Bureau also notes that there's been a surge of fraudulent cross-border lottery notifications that involve counterfeit checks.

E-mail notices announce that recipients have won a significant amount of money in a foreign sweepstakes. They're given a phone number to call and are instructed to cash certified checks ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 in order to collect their "entire award package", then told to wire the money or send their own check back to the lottery company to cover taxes and fees.

After the certified checks have been cashed, consumers have been notified the checks were counterfeit and they were liable for the withdrawn funds.

E-mail "phishing" is one way that people are conned into providing private information that can be used for identity theft. Phishing is a play on words for "fishing" -- large numbers of people receive a message and most ignore it, but unsuspecting customers may take the bait.

Usually the e-mail directs readers to a bogus Web site where they're asked to update personal information such as passwords and credit card, Social Security and bank account numbers that legitimate organizations already have.

KFCU reports one recent phishing scam involves an e-mail which falsely appears to be from a credit union. It asks members to complete a survey and promises a $5 credit to the members' account for participating. When the survey is completed, the respondent is directed to provide an account number for the $5 deposit.

"There's always a possibility that when you're asked for credit card numbers or other personal data online, your information may not be used for legitimate purposes," said attorney Dick Brock of the 81st Training Wing legal office.

Mr. Brock is among the Keesler people who often receive e-mail solicitations asking them to get involved in bogus international financial transactions.

A recent message he received claimed to be from a 73-year-old childless widow dying of cancer whose husband, who was supposedly killed by terrorists in Afghanistan, left her $12 million which she wants to donate to the underprivileged and to spread Christianity's message. She asks the recipient to contact her lawyer by e-mail to arrange the funds transfer.

"This is just one example of someone trying to get your personal information to defraud you," Mr. Brock said. "They may claim to originate from England, Nigeria, the Netherlands or any other foreign country. Some may ask you to assist someone who wants to come to the United States, and you'll be paid for your services. The stories may change, but the scam is still there.

"The smartest thing to do is to delete those messages immediately," he said.

Online auctions are another possible way that consumers are swindled. Internet auction fraud makes up more than 62 percent of the complaints received by the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center.

"Some buyers fail to receive any merchandise whatsoever," said Steve Cole, president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. "Others receive an item that in no way resembles what was advertised. There are buyers who report being misled about the terms of the sale and bidders who were tricked into using fake escrow sites when paying for their purchases."

Tips for avoiding online scams

The Justice Department and the Better Business Bureau offer these tips to avoid possible Internet fraud schemes:

Don't judge by initial appearances -- just because something appears on the Internet doesn't mean it's true. Readily-available software allows criminals to set up professional-looking Web sites that looks as impressive as those of legitimate e-commerce merchants.

Get details -- note the seller's name and physical address, what's included for the price, any shipping charges, delivery time and cancellation and return policy.

Look for signs that online purchases are secure -- when you're providing your payment information, the beginning of the Web site address should change from "http" to "shttp" or "https", indicating that the information is being encrypted and turned into code that can only be read by the seller. Your browser may also signal that the information is secure with a symbol, such as a broken key that becomes whole or a padlock that closes.

Be careful about giving out personal data online -- don't give information unless you're certain that the requester is legitimate. Secure transactions with known e-commerce sites are usually safe, especially if you use a credit card, but non-secure messages to unknown recipients aren't.

Never enter personal information on a pop-up screen -- when you visit a legitimate site, unauthorized screens created by identity thieves sometimes appear.

Keep documentation of your order -- print the confirmation and keep it in case you need it later.

Know who you're dealing with -- don't communicate with someone who conceals his true identity, because he doesn't want you to be able to contact him later if you have a dispute over undelivered goods or services.

Watch out for payment-in-advance demands -- online sellers may want you to send checks or money orders to a post office box before you receive the promised goods or services.

Protect your computer -- use spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a firewall and keep them up to date for safe shopping and other online activities.

Beware of e-mails offering loans or credit -- con artists take advantage of cash strapped customers, offering personal loans or credit cards for an upfront fee, then take the money and run.
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