As one security professional put it, “This Christmas Season is about a lot more than just Ho-Ho-Ho!” In fact, our favorite Christmas carols need to be updated to include something about the Internet and the cyber-criminals that lurk in the shadows, trying to steal our good tidings and spoil our holiday cheer. Yes, Cyber-crooks were on the rampage this holiday season, and, if you were lucky enough to avoid their schemes, then you were spared the agony of feeling foolish and of having to spend the next several months unraveling all the harm that was caused.
Despite many warnings to the contrary, many unsuspecting shoppers fell victim to the various charms of today’s modern conmen, hook, line, and sinker. In many respects, this is the time of year when we feel more trusting, while at the same time feeling under time pressure to perform our many family and relationship duties to a higher standard. The situation is a prime setup for cyber-crooks of every trade and persuasion, and you can be sure they have been preparing for several months to be extra naughty and not nice. Estimates of the carnage will come later, but anecdotal evidence is already piling up around the Christmas tree.
Conmen are expertly trained in the arts of persuasion, skills that easily transfer to today’s Internet. The online world also cloaks their identities in apparent anonymity, while suggestive graphics breed instant trust, a must-have at the outset, if your “mark” is to be duped without suspicion. These schemes are not new. They may have been updated with the latest in technological tricks of the trade, but the FBI, the Better Business Bureau (BBB), local law enforcement officials, television and newspaper reporters, and websites like this one have all published warnings of the clever traps that have been laid with care, right next to the stockings and Christmas goodies.
Hopefully, you were not waylaid by one of these clever schemes, but here are a few cases where unsuspecting consumers were taken on a cyber-sleigh ride:
Example #1 – The Great Deal Scam
What family would not like to have bigger flat-screen TV or one of the newer curved-screen varieties as a surprise on Christmas morning? Harry had been saving for months to buy just that purpose. He had also been searching the net to find the best deal and the most pixels for his buck. Prices were not coming down, and time was growing short. Harry was feeling the pressure and had to make a decision quickly, a situation that made him a prime suspect for a fleecing.
With only a few days left to meet shipping deadlines, he finally found what looked to be a legitimate website seller of the new curved-screen television sets with the size and price within acceptable limits that he had set. The sales distributor claimed that he has a special relationship with the manufacturing facility in China, the reason for the more than reasonable deal that is offered. This relationship, however, requires that all payments be wired to their U.S. bank clearing account. Shipment can only commence once good funds are received. Harry runs to his back and wires the funds.
As you might have guessed, no TV was ever shipped. The company has disappeared, and Harry is out the cash, with little if any hope of recovering any of it. Personal greed and time pressure were the culprits. If the deal is too good to be true, it usually is.
Example #2 – The Prepaid Card Scam
Kids today are totally consumed with electronic devices, whether it is the latest video game player, smart phone, or the latest rage, the e-pad mini. The games and visually appealing graphics are free for the most part, another benefit. But where do you find these devices at the right price when they are in such high demand? Mary wanted to buy e-pads for her five grandchildren, and, after a long search, she found a legitimate looking website that could ship them immediately.
When she went to check out, she was advised that the only acceptable payment method was to purchase an Amazon Gift Card and then give the card information to the company. A link was provided directly to the Amazon Gift Card center online. Mary applied for the card and loaded cash from her bank account. She then completed her order and provided the gift card information to the website.
The gifts never arrived, and the crooks used the funds on the card to buy other merchandise. Amazon also could not reverse the charges on the gift card. The scam works, as David Newman with the Federal Trade Commission admits, because, “It’s essentially mailing them an envelope full of money.” The funds are untraceable.
Example #3 – The Greeting Card Scam
Does anyone mail lots of Christmas cards anymore? Shirley was heavily into social media and into doing the latest “fab idea” that she had found online. She would never think of mailing Christmas cards when electronic cards were so convenient and exciting to receive. The cool thing to do this Christmas, however, was to create your own card with special graphics provided by an online website. The site unfortunately was a ruse, designed to load malware on your computer that would communicate your personal information back to the scammers.
One of the most popular of these sites duped over 60,000 consumers this season. According to Carl Leonard, principal security analyst at Raytheon – Websense, “This is an example of the growing sophistication of malware attackers, in this case laying out a smorgasbord of tempting Christmas freebies to lure the unprotected.”
As for those cheerful Christmas greeting card links, both the BBB and AARP warn that this scam tops their Holiday list and to avoid opening the card. It is an invitation for malware. Be particularly wary if the name of the sender is missing or you are asked for personal information in order to receive the greeting. Avoid clicking on pictures of Santa or on the most prevalent scam title this season – “On the 12th day of Christmas someone sent to me.” Check with your sender before opening the link.
Example #4 – The Dating Website Scam
Heather had just ended a long-term relationship in early November. She was not comforted by the fact that 80% of breakups occur at this time of year, but she surely regretted that she might have to spend the holidays alone. Her friends consoled her and suggested that she try an online dating service to find a companion and get back into the game, so to speak. She joined one of the popular services, filled out her profile, and immediately began to receive several interesting contacts.
One individual stood out from all of the rest. He was working a temporary job in the oil business in Alaska, quite a distance away from her present home. He quickly began calling her his “Angel from above” and sent little gifts to her, once he knew her address. A few weeks before Christmas, he was unfortunately laid off, and his temporary corporate housing was terminated, as well. When he mournfully said that he would love to be home with her for Christmas, Heather quickly said jump on a plane. Her new beau had no funds. He had to put everything in storage, but if she could wire him a few thousand dollars, then he would be there in an instant. He sent his banking information.
Heather went to her bank and wired $2,500. A few days later, the emails and chats stopped. Her Christmas companion never showed, and she never saw her money again.
Simple advice for avoiding the online conman both then and now
Psychological studies have revealed that our brains can be easily duped by a clever conman or even by an aggressive salesperson, another obstacle to be overcome during high shopping periods. The suspicious centers of our minds can actually be turned off, if we are immediately made to feel confident or comfortable with the situation at hand. Conmen understand this simple truth and devise gambits worthy of disguising their evil intentions at the outset. Your only hope is to keep your suspicions on alert, whenever you are approached directly or when contacting a website on the web.
The (BBB) has also provided these helpful hints:
- If the price seems to good to be true, then be wary of the offering — Be suspicious if the item you want is severely discounted in price, much more so than on most other websites;
- Beware of high-pressure sales — Conmen do not want you to have time to think about a deal or to confer with another friend. Their objective is to get your money quickly before your suspicions kick in;
- Watch out for sellers who won’t take credit cards — Scammers want untraceable cash that cannot be reversed. Be wary if they only accept bank wires, prepaid debit cards, or gift cards;
- Check for legitimate contact information – Legitimate sellers will disclose real phone numbers and addresses on their websites because they know the value of customer service when it comes to problems after the sale. If you have any doubts, plug the phone number or address given into a search engine and see what comes up, which might be other firms or complaints;
- Make sure websites are secure and authenticated – When shopping online, it is always a good sign to see “https” before the web address and a small lock symbol. These items indicate that the site employs special security measures to protect your credit card and/or banking information from compromise.
The Holiday Season is a perfect time for scammers of all persuasions to be out and about, searching high and low for their next victims. This lucrative period of time for the criminal element in our society does not stop at Christmas day. It continues into the New Year and beyond. Hopefully, you were not reeled in like the poor souls above, but it can happen to anyone. Your age, intelligence, and experiences offer no protection when a skillful conman enters your space. They know how to turn off the suspicious sectors of your mind to gain your confidence and trust upfront.
Your only protection rests in how vigilant you are in maintaining a skeptical attitude before you are approached or accosted by one of these thieves, either directly or online. Keep your greed in check and follow the helpful hints provided by the BBB. You are your first and last line of defense when it comes to preventing fraud!