On-line crimes increase as Internet use does

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   As the number of households across the nation with Internet access grows, so to does the number of individuals victimized by Internet and e-mail fraud.
   A report released earlier this month by the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, an organization created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center, states that in 2002, the number of Internet fraud complaints increased 67 percent from what they had been the year before. In 2002, the IFCC received 75,063 complaints of Internet fraud, computer intrusions and child pornography. In 2001, the number of complaints had been 49,957.
   Once the IFCC receives these complaints, the complaints are reviewed and referred to the appropriate local, state or federal agencies. In 2002, the IFCC referred 48,252 of the complaints it received. In order for a case to be referred, the reporting individual has to have either lost money through fraud or have given their personal information to the individual, according to information from the IFCC.
   The report also states that the total dollar loss from all of the referred complaints in 2002 was $54 million, up from $17 million the year before.
   The IFCC report states that the most common type of Internet fraud is on-line auction fraud. According to an agent with the Johnson City office of the FBI, who wished to remain unnamed due to his involvement with ongoing investigations, stated that on-line auction frauds are usually dealt with by the auction company and are not investigated by the FBI.
   One of the more common types of Internet fraud that the FBI investigates is a type of e-mail fraud that has been classified as "Nigerian scams."
   In these Nigerian scams, a person will receive an e-mail asking for their assistance in helping to get inheritance money or other types of money out of a country so that it does not fall into the hands of regime leaders, or a military school or any other number of horrid possibilities. The sender of the e-mail asks for the recipient's help to get the money out by transferring it to their bank account and for their assistance he will give them a percentage of whatever the fortune may be.
   If the person who receives the letter decides to send them their bank account number, not only does the perpetrator have access to their money now, they also have access to the victim's personal information and can now commit the crime of identity theft, according to the FBI agent. "The bottom line is they want to get your personal information and your bank account," the agent said.
   Once a person has been victimized by such a scam, it does not stop there, the FBI agent said. "The trouble is that once they have been victimized, they are put on what is called a "mooch list, and that is passed around to other scammers," he said.
   These letters were dubbed "Nigerian scams" by investigators due to the fact that many of them originate from Nigeria or other West African countries.
   "The West African scams got so bad that for a while, France would not allow anyone from West Africa to set up a bank account there," the FBI agent said. "These Nigerian scams have been going on for years and the fact that it continues shows that it has victimized some people."
   Another popular scam that the FBI deals with is a lottery scam where victims are contacted and told they have won some kind of lottery prize and in order to receive their prize they must pay the taxes on it in advance, according to the FBI agent. "Any lottery that is reputable will not ask you to send money up front," he said.
   This particular type of scam tends to target the elderly more, he said. These perpetrators often take advantage of the good natures of their victims, he said.
   The best way to avoid becoming the victim of such scams, the FBI agent said, is be more skeptical when dealing with offers from the Internet that the person has not themselves initiated. "With a lot of these, it's just good old general advice: If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is," he said.
   On the local level, people have been receiving the "Nigerian Scam" letters as well, according to Elizabethton Police Department detectives.
   "Most of the ones I have seen come from Nigeria, Angola, Zimbabwe and places like that," said Capt. Mike Peters. "This used to be a big scam through the mail. We've gotten them for four or five years in the mail, basically the same letter, just in hard copy."
   Elizabethton and Carter County also have been victimized by another type of scam that is done through the Internet according to Elizabethton Detective Matt Bowers. "The most common one here is the overpayment for items that you have for sale," he said.
   According to Bowers, this type of scam occurs when someone posts an item for sale through classifieds or other means on-line and a person contacts them to buy it. The perpetrator then agrees to send them a cashier's check, personal check or money order for the item and when the victim receives it, it is for an amount more than the price. The perpetrator sends a letter along with the payment explaining that the extra amount is a finder's fee for someone and requests the victim to send the extra funds to the third party.
   Then, once the victim receives payment, the buyer demands the merchandise to be delivered immediately or arranges for someone to pick the merchandise up immediately and also asks that the extra funds be sent immediately as well.
   What sometimes happens, Bowers said, is that people will go ahead and send the merchandise and sometimes the additional money before the check or money order clears their bank, only to later find out that the check or money order was a fraud. "The best advice to avoid this is to check with your bank first to find out how long it will take a check to clear," he said, adding that a person should wait until the check does clear and they confirm that with their bank before sending any merchandise or additional funds.
   According to Peters, checks can be easily forged with the current computer technology. "Sometimes it is such a good counterfeit that the banks may not even catch it right away," he said.
   According to police reports, one local man has even received death threats as a result of such fraud. According to the report, the man had an item for sale and waited for the check to clear and when it was returned as forged, he would not deliver the merchandise. After that, he was the victim of harassment and death threats from the individuals attempting to purchase the item he had for sale. EPD investigators are currently working on that case.
   Both city detectives and the FBI agent urged individuals who have received such e-mails or who have been the victims of Internet fraud to contact the IFCC through their Web site at www.ifccfbi.gov <http://www.ifccfbi.gov> .