Rash of online scams plague netizens

In the past week there have been a rash of online scams that are costing Internet users millions and keeping local and national law-enforcement officials on edge.

Today alone there are reports of two new scams. One targets customers of major banks such as Wells Fargo Bank and Bank of America. According to an article in the San Jose Mercury News the e-mails misrepresent themselves as official bank communications and prey on the public's fear of identity theft by "alerting" them of a phony security breech. A link within the message directs recipients to a fake Web site where they are asked to enter their account numbers and passwords - core information for identity thieves. Spelling and grammar errors riddle the solicitations, the article notes. As with most banks Wells Fargo and Bank of America say they don't request personal information by e-mail and ask customers not to respond to suspicious communications.

And since it is the beginning of the college entry season, complaints against online scholarship, loan and grant services are on the rise. The Better Business Bureau reported a 60% increase in complaints about such scams in 2006 over 2005.

"The fallout from this year's student loan scandal, combined with the efforts of tireless scammers, means there is a real trust crisis in the financial aid industry. There are many unscrupulous businesses and outright scams taking advantage of overwhelmed parents who are just trying to put their child through school," said Steve Cox, spokesperson for the BBB System in a statement. The BBB said that one of the biggest complaints it receives come from consumers who have received emails with offers for "Free Grant Money" - saying they qualified for private or government grant money as financial aid for debt relief or to help pay off college bills.

When victims received the grant in the form of a check, they were instructed to deposit the check and then wire a smaller amount of money back to cover processing fees. Because checks looked professional, it often took several weeks for banks to discover they were counterfeit. Not only did victims have to pay the banks back for money they withdrew on the counterfeit checks, they were also out the money they had wired to the scammers.

The BBB is also warning US homeowners that it has heard complaints from victims of foreclosure rescue schemes in almost all 50 states. Not surprisingly, states with the highest foreclosure rates-such as

Georgia, Colorado and Ohio-have an exceptionally high number of complaints for companies offering foreclosure rescue. The BBB warns that gloomy forecasts for the housing and financial markets means that increasingly more people could fall prey to mortgage foreclosure scams in the future.

Meanwhile the Internal Revenue Service last week again warned taxpayers of a new phishing scam, in which an e-mail purporting to come from the

IRS advises taxpayers they can receive $80 by filling out an online customer satisfaction survey. The IRS urges taxpayers to ignore this solicitation and not provide any requested information. The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers through e-mail. Earlier this summer the IRS reported consumers had received a "Tax Avoidance Investigation" e-mail claiming to come from the IRS' "Fraud Department" in which the recipient was asked to complete an "investigation form," for which there is a link contained in the e-mail, because of possible fraud that the recipient committed. It is believed that clicking on the link may activated a Trojan Horse, the IRS said.

In Massachusetts online lottery scams and phony online companies are the scourge. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette today reports an increase in the "you have won a lottery" scam. Many people believe they have received their big break when they get a notice saying they have hundreds of thousands of dollars in a foreign lottery. If they follow the letter's request and send cash to receive the winnings, they don't receive money but instead land on a list, the article states.

Even the city's police weren't spared. A city police officer was conned in a type of purchasing scam that occurs after someone posts an item for sale on a Web site such as craigslist.com. The officer, who was not identified, posted a car for sale and was contacted by a man who said he wanted to purchase it. The man promised to send a check and a car carrier to pick it up because the car was going to be shipped overseas. The man said the car carrier needed to be paid in cash so he was going to send the officer a check for more than the asking price, with the extra going to the driver. The officer cashed the check, but was then told the extra money should be sent back to the man. The officer did so. No car carrier ever came. The car was never sold and the check was phony, leaving the officer responsible for the bank loss, the article stated.

The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles earlier this year warned customers about an online scam intended to trick them out of their credit card information and their money. Registry officials uncovered a spoof site purporting to be the registry's Web site. The phony Web site asked consumers for their credit card information and then charged a $10 fee to conduct registry business online.

Finally, Illinois police are chasing after an on-line work-at-home scammer who wiped out one woman's checking account and left her with $3,400 dollar overdraft. The woman responded to and online, part-time job that promised she could work from home and make a lot of money. ''Who wouldn't jump on it? 30 dollars an hour, three hours a day, five days a week'', she told a local TV station. After sending her resume and undergoing several job ''interviews'' by email, the woman thought she had been hired by a company called Jill and James. She later received a Fed Ex package containing four 930 dollar checks in her name. She said she was instructed to cash them at her bank, and then wire 32-hundred dollars of the money to a Western Union address they provided. She was told it was for the laptop and software she needed to start her job from home. She went to National Bank in Rapids City, and ''the bank cashed them without any hesitation whatsoever''. The woman said and 11 days later, the bank called and notified the checks were counterfeit. The bank told her they would deduct the money from her checking account, leaving her with a $3,400 dollar overdraft.

The FBI in the meantime has made a number of big busts using the eBay and other online auction sites this year. Now today comes news that it played a big role in the indictment of an

Alabama man for wire fraud. Joseph Davidson, has been charged in U.S. District Court with wire fraud in connection with an eBay scheme in which he allegedly received approximately $77,000 for stolen goods sold on the auction site. "Online auction houses present an opportunity for a thief to turn a stolen item into cash. Thieves should know that law enforcement can surf sites too in investigating crime," stated U.S. Attorney Alice H. Martin in a statement on the FBI's Web site.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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