Can You Protect Your Family Against Cyber-Dangers?

Katherine Lester was a 16-year old honors student who secretly went to Jordan to marry a man she met in MySpace, a popular site for teenagers. Her parents found out in time, and when she got back to her native Michigan in June 2006, she was already known throughout the U.S. as the notorious “Runaway Bride.” Ignorance is bliss but knowledge is power. Modern society has come to a point where life without the Internet is simply inconceivable. But the World Wide Web is not Utopia – sometimes it’s Gotham City. To avoid the troublespots, let us monitor the traffic in the Information Superhighway. Sex Predators The modus operandi is to stalk children in popular cyber-hangouts, then manipulate the victims to meet them in private. “More often than not, conversations online do not match up with expectations in reality,” warns youth development director Carol Balhechet of the Singapore Children’s Society. A March 2006 survey by the U.S. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children showed that 14% of teenage chatters have actually met with strangers they’ve encountered online. An April 2006 survey of 1,124 teenagers in Singapore aged 12-17 showed the figure to be nearly 20% -- of which 22% went alone. Although boys are more likely to keep such encounters to themselves, both boys and girls are vulnerable. The profile of a typical victim is that of a naïve, curious, and a bit rebellious teenager, according to Special Agent Allison Mourad of Innocent Images, an anti-pedophile special online unit of the FBI. The profile of a typical pedophile is a middle-class man who is married and has kids – and whose work involves children. The FBI has caught, among others, a pediatrician and a kindergarten teacher. The 2006 arrest figures were more than 4 times than that of 5 years ago. I.D. Theft The M.O. is to assume other people’s identities to access their credit-cards, bank accounts, insurance claims, social security benefits, tax refunds and the like. The first step is to do a credit check on potential victims. Card-holders should be alert for any credit-inquiry entry in their credit history. If you have been victimized, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission advises that 1) Alert your credit-card company ASAP; 2) File a theft-affidavit ASAP; and 3) File a police report ASAP. A more recent M.O. is to access information from data-collecting agencies. One of the biggest U.S. scandals in 2005 was how a Copymat shop attendant was able to steal files from ChoicePoint, a company with links with the Department of Homeland Security. Hackers can even access wireless gadgets like PDAs through wireless Internet connectors like Bluetooth. A 22-year old cyber-voyeur tapped into the celebrity files of T-Mobile, and exposed the contents online – including photos of a topless Paris Hilton and Latin America MTV VJ Eglantina Zingg. Auction Scams “The most common form of online auction fraud involves goods not delivered or the value of what is sent being only a fraction of what was paid,” according to Sgt. Barry Elliot of PhoneBusters, an Ontario-based agency that monitors telemarketing complaints. It is best to deal only with firms that have already established credibility like eBay and Amazon. “Reputable online merchants have contact numbers and a proper business address,” says detective Vello Kleeband of the Vancouver Police Computer Investigative Support Unit. Job Scams The M.O. goes like this: a website will offer employment or livelihood opportunities for a fee (usually a cheque sent to a P.O. box) and follow-up e-mails will be ignored even after the cheque had already been encashed. “Work-at-home schemes are the most common frauds we see,” according to Leslie King of the Better business Bureau of Ottawa and Hull. Travel Scams The M.O. is to send congratulatory e-mails with certificates to “winners” of either fake or misleading trip prizes or travel discounts. “Avoid paying a company for travel that won’t be ticketed or take place for 12 to 18 months,” warns consumer affairs director Stan Bosco of the American society of Travel Agents. “When it comes time to get your tickets, the dates you want are often not available, restrictions may make it more expensive, or the company has disappeared.” Lottery Scams One M.O. is to send e-mails to “winners” of online lotteries (their names were supposedly chosen at random by a computer) but they must send their bank account numbers because the “prizes” will be “deposited” there. The most common M.O. is to create websites for online gamblers. “Type ‘lotteries’ into a search engine if you want to see how many sweepstakes scams are out on the Internet,” according to corporate security investigator Gordon Board of the British Columbia Lottery Corp, “People buy tickets on their credit-cards at these bogus sites, but there is no prize money.” Phone Scams The M.O. is to send e-mails that will compel the recipients to call an overseas number (usually in the Caribbean) with hidden charges of up to $25 per minute. When the phone bills are paid the following month, “the crooks divide the take with the unwitting phone company,” reveals Elliot. Techniques used to force victims to call include threats of an impending lawsuit and directions on how collect a prize. Investment Scams The M.O. is to send e-mails or create websites that promise business opportunities with fantastic profits. This includes buying stock shares, joining business partnerships, availing of tax exemption techniques and overseas investments (usually in the Caribbean) that don’t exist. If you reply, they will send you a questionnaire about your financial history – and they will use that information to siphon off you life savings. A more sophisticated M.O. is the pump-and-dump scheme. This is where perpetrators have real stocks which they hype (pump) through fake tips in investment chat rooms and online newsletters. Once the price is bid up by investors, they sell (dump) at a profit—and disappear. Still another M.O. is online investment. The bait is that investors can actually track their money’s growth in real time. If they decide to cash in, their accounts will automatically register zero. Games Scams This is the latest craze in the cyber-underworld. The M.O. is to hack into the accounts of MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) players, “steal the artifacts and characters acquired during the course of the games, and sell them,” reports Sylvia Springs in the Dec. 11, 2006 issue of Newsweek. “The most common method of breaking into accounts is to use Trojans – software that installs itself on a PC without the user’s knowledge.” Since January 2007, 300 new Trojans have come out specially designed for WOW (World of Warcraft) accounts, according to chief research officer Mikko Hyppönen of Helsinki-based cybersecurity firm F-secure. “We really didn’t see this a year ago.”
Photo courtesy of PainetWorks. This story originally appeared in Philippine Panorama, February 5, 2007. Sources: Newsweek, Time and Reader's Digest Your comments and links are welcome