As more of our lives are conducted online, including our financial lives, the risk of falling prey to online crime also grows. In 2008, a record-setting 275,284 complaints were filed, according to the latest report of the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Crimes, both fraudulent and nonfraudulent, increased by more than 32% in the United States between 2004 and 2008, and the amount of money reported lost annually skyrocketed from $68 million to $265 million.
Fraud complaints include auction fraud, credit and debit card frauds, and nondelivery of goods or services. Nonfraud complaints include computer intrusions (hacking/cracking), spam, and child pornography.
One of the biggest stories of 2008 was the popularity of fraudulent FBI e-mails used in identity-theft schemes, the report notes. Another development was the increasingly personalized nature of the contacts to gain trust of the victims, allowing fraudsters to take over unsecured e-mail accounts.
Despite the global nature of the Internet, more than 66% of the perpetrators of Internet crimes were from the United States, as were 92% of the complaints that the organization received.
Predicting where, when, how, and whom Internet crimes and frauds may strike is impeded by the many variables of individual Internet usage — more time spent using the Internet increases exposure, for instance, but also increases a user’s experience and Net savvy.
The report concludes that the best crime-fighting strategy is proactive prevention measures. Users need to educate themselves about Internet crimes and fraud schemes, and be more aware of their own risky behaviors.
Tips offered by the report for preventing Internet crimes include:
In Internet auctions, learn as much about the seller as you can and see what actions the auction site will take in the event of a problem.
Obtain a physical address for the seller, not just a post office box.
Be particularly cautious in responding to unsolicited e-mail offers.
Make payment by credit cards, because those payments can be disputed if something goes wrong. Another option is an escrow service, but be sure to investigate that service, too.
To avoid identity theft, guard your personal information, especially your Social Security number; check your credit reports ; and destroy documents before discarding them if they contain critical information such as account numbers.
Victims also need to overcome any embarrassment they may have about reporting such crimes, because more information on more Internet users’ experiences enables law enforcement officials to better see trends in the criminal uses of the Internet.