Who fits the profile of a scam victim? Roughly 34 million people -- according to a just-released AARP report, Caught in the Scammer's Net. The report finds that 15 online behaviors and life situations may significantly increase a person's vulnerability to online fraud -- and nearly one in five American adults engage in at least seven of them.
More than just engaging in risky behaviors online -- victims have also recently experienced a difficult life experience, like losing a job or losing money. How does going through a difficult time make you more vulnerable to fraud? Just as a weakened immune system lowers your resistance to disease, negative life events lower your resistance to fraud.
These eye-opening findings are pooled from detailed surveys of 11,000 adults across the U.S., comparing the online actions, behaviors and life experiences of fraud victims and non-victims -- providing a detailed "profile" of those who are most vulnerable to Internet-based scams.
In the past seven days prior to being surveyed, respondents admitted to:
• Clicking on pop-up advertisements: Opened by 26 percent of victims compared to 10 percent of non-victims, pop-ups are often used to install computer malware or lead to surveys that glean personal information.
• Opening email from unknown sources: 27 percent of victims versus 17 percent of non-victims risked similar malware and detail-seeking phishing risks in emails.
• Downloading apps: 39 percent of victims versus 28 percent of non-victims are vulnerable to yet another method to install malware to steal computer files, passwords and accounts.
• Selling products: 23 percent of victims versus 7 percent of non-victims are active on online auction sites. Scammers pose as buyers, paying with counterfeit checks or money orders -- often for higher amounts than the sale price, with a request to send back the difference.
• Purchasing a product through a money payment business: 47 percent of victims versus 30 percent on non-victims use this service, which becomes risky when you link to a checking or debit card account. If those systems are hacked or someone gets your payment transfer information, your bank account is now exposed to the scammer.
• Signing up for "free trial" offers: 18 percent of victims versus 8 percent of non-victims engaged in these traps, which lock buyers into hard-to-cancel contracts -- and merchandise may not arrive until after the trial ends.
The key negative life experiences include:
• Feelings of isolation, reported by two in three victims, compared to a minority of non-victims,
• Loss of a job: 23 percent of victims versus 10 percent non-victims.
• Negative change in financial status: 44 percent of victims versus 23 percent of non-victims.
• Being concerned about debt: 69 percent of victims versus 57 percent of non-victims.
When asked several questions about Internet safety, neither victims nor non-victims scored particularly well. But in two specific questions, victims were significantly less likely to answer correctly than non-victims:
• Being unaware that banks do not send emails to customers asking them to click on a link to verify personal or account information. Nearly two in three victims, compared to just 38 percent of non-victims, believe that banks do this, but it's a common ruse by scammers to download malware or collect details for likely identity theft.
About the research
The report was commissioned by the AARP Fraud Watch Network -- a national campaign to connect people to experts, law enforcement and people like them who can help them spot and avoid scams. Available free of charge to AARP members and non-members alike, and people of any age, the Fraud Watch Network provides:
• Watchdog Alert emails that deliver breaking scam information,
• Prevention tips based on the latest information from experts,
• An interactive map with the latest law enforcement warnings from each state,
• A phone number people can call to talk to volunteers trained to help fraud victims, and
• Access to a network of people who are sharing their experiences with scams so they can help others protect themselves.
For a copy of the survey, click here: http://www.aarp.org/onlinefraud
The Scam: The con artist sends a letter or email -- purportedly only to a few recipients but actually to several thousand -- making an offer that would result in a large payoff for the victim. The details vary, but generally the story is that a person, often the wife or son of a deposed African dictator, knows about some unclaimed fortune that they are willing to share with the scam victim in return for an advanced fee (e.g. bail money for the imprisoned millionaire). Once money starts coming in, the con artist will continue asking for more, claiming that problems have arisen. How To Protect Yourself: The FBI advises that if you "receive a letter from Nigeria asking you to send personal or banking information, send the letter to the U.S. Secret Service, your local FBI office or U.S. Postal Inspection Service." You can also register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission's Complaint Assistant here.
The Scam: Criminals set up craigslist accounts advertising the sale of desirable items (e.g. cars, computers, iPhones) at too good to be true prices. A meeting is set up with the victim in a remote location where they're robbed upon arrival. How To Protect Yourself: Detective Frank Avila of the West Valley LAPD advises "good places to meet are local police stations or malls. Criminals are less likely to conduct crimes or illegal activity in public areas where lots of people are present."
The Scam: The victim is contacted and informed that they've won some sort of free gift, vacation or prize but that they have to pay "postage and handling" or some sort of tax before they receive their reward. How To Protect Yourself: If you've legitimately won something, you should never have to pay any sum to receive it. It's almost impossible to get your money back if you've been cheated over the phone, so before you buy anything by telephone, remember not to buy from unfamiliar companies, always ask for and wait until you receive written material about an offer and always check out unfamiliar companies with your local consumer protection agency. From the FBI: "Legitimate businesses understand that you want more information about their company and are happy to comply."
The Scam: The con artist, acting on behalf of a fake company, promises a sage investment with ridiculous returns for the victim. The fake company takes the money, but no investment is made. Instead the money goes into their pockets -- and disappears just as quickly as the company soon will. The old adage holds true: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. How To Protect Yourself: According to the FBI: "Do not invest in anything unless you understand the deal. Con artists rely on complex transactions and fault logic to 'explain' fraudulent investment schemes." Always be wary of any investment that offers the promise of extremely high yields.
The Scam: Homeowners are distracted by an individual while other sneak into their homes, stealing valuables, cash and jewelry. The ruse burglary can take place under the guise of a gas leak that needs to be stopped, a tree next door that needs trimming but must be reached fromt he angle of a neighbor's lawn, or indeed anything that will result in the preoccupation of a resident while they are unknowingly robbed by other accomplices. Ruse burglaries sometimes lead to home invasion situations that can pose the risk of assault or other violent crimes taking place. How To Protect Yourself: If someone is asking you to step outside of your home for any reason, don't. Instead, offer to call 911 for them. If someone claims they need to do urgent work on behalf of a utility company, call the utility company and verify the work.
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