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Thread: How to recognise and avoid online scams

  1. #1
    johnny.rotton's Avatar
    johnny.rotton is offline Gold Member
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    Jan 2009
    South, UK

    Default How to recognise and avoid online scams

    Today, it’s almost impossible to spend any time online without encountering someone looking to swindle you out of a few quid and scams now pose a greater online threat than hackers ever did.

    After all, why bother trying to crack a computer’s defenses by force when you can just trick someone into willingly giving away their online banking credentials?

    This kind of confidence trick lies at the heart of all scams, online or otherwise, and knowing how to spot them is the best way to avoid falling for it.

    Cold-call cons
    Paying someone to fix a non-existent fault is one of the oldest tricks in the book. For computer users, the scam often starts with an unsolicited phone call from someone claiming to be from a technical support company.

    After a vague description of a generic problem, the drill is for the smooth-tongued technician to direct you to a web page, where a remote control session can then be initiated. This is usually – a legitimate remote control technical support site that is being misused for criminal purposes.

    With full access to your PC, the remote scammer can pretend to fix problems, fabricate new ones and install malicious software. The unsuspecting victim is required to pay for this privilege, and may even be offered the chance to cough up an annual subscription for keeping the computer ‘safe’ for a fault-free future.

    Cold calls about your PC from companies you have never dealt with should set off alarm bells immediately – not least since the technology to detect a problem on your PC, over the internet, without your knowledge, does not exist.

    Regardless of how accurate the caller’s assessment of your PC’s problems is (they do sometimes guess lucky), treat such offers of help like you would any unsolicited sales call – just hang up the phone.

    Danger! Click to scan disk
    Fake on-screen safety alerts are another way to fool PC users into thinking they have a fault. These typically appear while web browsing, when a visit to a site (often as the result of a mistyped web address or masked link) produces a pop-up warning of a virus or spyware infection.

    Welcome to the world of ‘scareware’, where PC users are duped into installing convincing-looking malicious software that manufactures ‘problems’ in order to extract payment for equally fictitious fixes.

    In a 12-month period ending in June 2009, security vendor Symantec received reports of 43 million failed scareware installation attempts worldwide – which makes you wonder how many were actually successful.

    Assuming you have up-to-date anti-virus, spyware and firewall software in place, the best safeguard against scareware is common sense. In other words, don’t trust a random website to warn you of a problem that your trusted tools have missed.

    Using the most recent version of your web browser is also a good idea – Internet Explorer 8, Firefox 3, Google Chrome and Safari 5 will all attempt to block known malicious software sites, and will draw attention to web addresses that attempt to mask their true location.

    Gone phishing
    Unsolicited emails that invite you to click a link to confirm bank, building society or Paypal account details may be an old con trick but many people still fall for it every day. Such phishing attempts typically redirect unsuspecting surfers to a website that has been carefully crafted to mimic the login page of the real thing.

    The erroneous web address is usually the only giveaway, but who pays much attention to this if the rest of the site looks kosher?

    Once relieved of their security credentials, the usual trick is to display a login error message before redirecting the victim to the genuine site for a second login attempt, leaving them none the wiser about what just happened.

    Estimates of losses through phishing attacks vary, but can run into tens of millions of pounds worldwide. Banks often consider losses arising from phishing emails to be the customer’s fault and will not refund lost money as a matter of course – only that which can be recovered successfully.

    A good spam filter aside, the only surefire way to avoid being phished is to never provide personal information in response to any unsolicited email, even if it appears to be from an organisation you deal with.

    If an email is so convincing to make you uncertain of its validity (some companies have been known to slip up by sending emails they shouldn’t), open the appropriate web page manually and check your account, or contact the organisation directly to seek advice.

    See PayPal Login tips.

    It could be you!
    A millionaire is made every minute online, or at least that’s what the internet lottery scammers would have you believe. Email notifications of vast lottery wins are a common type of con, but most should be easy to spot – after all, how can you win a lottery that you have not even entered?

    Fake lottery emails usually involve advance-fee fraud and the idea is for winnings to only be made available once ever-increasing amounts of money have been handed over to cover administration fees and other sundry charges.

    Needless to say, that king-size cardboard cheque with your name on it never arrives and the scammer is the only prizewinner from these transactions.

    No matter how convincing the email or the circumstances surrounding it, genuine notifications of lottery wins are easily checked. If, and only if, you hold a valid ticket for the lottery in question, just manually browse to the appropriate website and check your numbers there – and don’t click any links in the email.

    We just need your card details to proceed…
    Greed is good where scammers are concerned, which is why advance-fee fraud is so successful. This scam starts with an email from someone claiming to have access to a vast sum that they are seeking to export from a war-torn or notoriously corrupt country.

    In return for facilitating the transfer of money, the victim is offered a substantial slice of the ill-gotten gains as a commission.

    The catch is that the scammer first needs some working capital to overcome a few financial obstacles before the money can be released – this is the ‘advance fee’.

    When presented with such a high rate of return, greedy and gullible victims are often quick to take leave of their senses, and can give money away to pay for all manner of unforeseen setbacks – particularly when the lump sum seems to be almost within reach.

    Advance-fee fraud is often associated with emails from Nigeria (it is also known as 419 fraud, after the relevant part of the Nigerian Criminal Code), but has long since spread to other countries.

    Avoiding the scam involves recognising the unsolicited and wholly fantastic emails for what they are – and deleting them.

    Always check cheques
    Online auctions are rife with fraudulent activity and both buyers and sellers should treat any transaction with care. One common scam to afflict sellers of high-value items is for a successful overseas bidder to offer to pay by cheque.

    A larger cheque than necessary then arrives, on the pretence of covering some vague additional costs, and the seller is invited to refund the excess amount through an untraceable wire transfer.

    At first, the deal seems genuine: the deposited cheque is credited to your account so you complete your end of the bargain. The scam, however, relies upon a loophole in the cheque-clearing process, and the fact that the cheque is a dud.

    Banks usually credit funds from deposited cheques to an account within a few working days – a process that is called ‘cleared for value’.

    The money can be withdrawn at this stage, but it doesn’t actually belong to you until the cheque has been ‘cleared for fate’ and the funds to cover it are confirmed. This can take some time for a cheque drawn on a foreign bank, which means that by the time the cheque has been identified as fraudulent, the buyer has your item and your money.

    Worse still, your bank is well within its rights to reclaim the deposited amount of money you may have spent. Avoiding cheque overpayment scams with online auctions is easy – always wait until UK cheques have cleared for fate before shipping goods to a buyer, and only use auction service-approved payment methods for overseas sales.

    A friend in need
    Social-networking sites and services offer rich pickings for scammers – many people are happy to make friends with strangers, and will blindly click links in messages without paying much attention to who they are from.

    An inadvertent phishing trip can easily lead to your social-networking account being compromised. With full access to your personal details a scammer can make a convincing cry for help to your online friends.

    Steering clear of this type of scam is simple, but it does rely on common sense. Always pay close attention to social-network login pages you get sent to after clicking a web link, and think twice before signing up to third-party sites that request your login details.

    Be wary of any online request for money, even if it is from a close friend – a phone call should be all it takes to confirm they are really who they say they are.

    Protect your PC against trojans

    A robust web browser and up-to-date anti-virus software will keep most malicious software at bay, but such security measures aren't much use if you are prone to accept invitations to install seemingly useful software from suspect websites.

    Once installed, Trojans do various things, from interfering with web browsing to harvesting passwords, bank account details and other personal information.

    Trojans are also responsible for the rise of the botnet – vast networks of compromised computers that can be remotely controlled and called upon to send thousands of spam emails or even launch attacks on websites, all without their owners’ knowledge.

    Botnets are also used to spread more Trojans, usually by sending spam that urges you to click links for anything from scandalous photos of celebrities to free software downloads.

    Getting rid of a Trojan is seldom easy. Once it has embedded itself on the computer, making prevention an easier option than cure.

    Disastrous diversions
    Scammers are never slow to spot an opportunity to make money dishonestly and major world events are the ideal bait to trick their victims. Emails for fake charity sites were sent within hours of the Haiti earthquake that happened in January, for example, and web searches are similarly afflicted with bogus results.

    Web search and email links usually lead to web pages that are used to distribute malicious software, but it’s not unknown for sites to accept ‘donations’ that are never seen by their supposed beneficiaries.

    Apart from the obvious advice of never giving money away in response to an unsolicited email, the best way to avoid charity scams is to only make online donations using recognised charity sites.

    If you are unsure about an online charity, look it up online at the Charity Commission website.

    Make money fast
    The chance to earn big bucks by working from home can be tempting for anyone who cannot get out to work or just needs some extra income. Some such offers are genuine, of course (just ask any Avon representative) but many are scams designed to line someone else’s pocket.

    The usual ruse is to seek up-front payment for materials that must be processed in some way in order to earn money – anything from flyers for stuffing through letterboxes to market the same scam you just fell for, to parts that must be put together before being sold back to the seller for a small price premium (with obvious results).

    Such scams take a more blatantly criminal twist when they involve using a personal bank account to accept money transfers from other accounts, which must then be wired overseas in return for a commission.

    There is often real money to be made here, but since the source is funds stolen via phishing scams and malware attacks, it’s easy to see where being a ‘money mule’ can lead.

    Avoiding work-from-home scams is a case of sussing out an offer before jumping in. Researching the company name using the search engine Google is often enough to reveal a scam’s actual intent, but any scheme that involves an up-front payment should be treated with extreme caution, as should anything that promises a big reward for little effort on your part.

    Common sense and sensibility
    Common sense is the obvious way to combat the 10 scams we have covered here, but mistakes are made. It only takes a mouse click to fall foul of a phishing email, or to miss a telltale sign that a website isn’t legitimate

    Sadly, while technological countermeasures can minimise the risks posed by scams, they can’t remove them completely.

    So, remembering that these computerised con tricks exist can be enough to help you avoid them. Otherwise, the best bit of advice is that old cliché – when presented with any tantalising temptation, if it sounds to good to be true, then it almost certainly is.


  2. #2
    Max Peck's Avatar
    Max Peck is offline New Member
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    Dec 2009


    Good post.


  3. #3
    amon91's Avatar
    amon91 is offline Beginner
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    Jul 2010


    Indeed nice post. The rule of thumb is really the URL (assuming your machine is malware-free). If it's something you're not used to then it's a scam, burn it.

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