DEAR DATA DOG: What's the most common Internet scam?

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Tech support. Seriously, though, judging from consumer complaints, the most common way of getting e-ripped off is through online auction fraud. Forty-eight percent of complaints received in the first six months of operation at the FBI's Internet Fraud Complaint Center, established in May 2000, involved “auction fraud� (www.ifccfbi.gov). The runner-up, “non-deliverable,� was a distant second, accounting for just 19.2 percent of complaints, while “securities fraud� was listed at third with 16.9 percent. (What does “non-deliverable� mean, you ask? Send me 100 bucks and I'll mail you the answer.)

The National Fraud Information Center's Internet Fraud Watch also lists “online auctions� as its top source of Internet fraud for the entire year 2000, but at a much higher percentage: 76 percent (www.fraud.org/internet/intset.htm). According to the Center, online fraud resulted in an average loss of $665 per victim. That figure will probably drop, though, now that Yahoo! and eBay have banned the sale of Nazi memorabilia, ending the proliferation of all those bogus paintings of “Hitler playing poker with dogs.�

The NFIC reports that the means by which con artists find their marks has been changing. In 1999, Web sites and e-mail accounted for almost all initial contact between con artists and victims (90 percent and 9 percent respectively), while newsgroups were used in a mere .5 percent of scams. By September 2000, the number of cases in which contact was made through newsgroups rose to 4 percent, e-mail contacts increased to 12 percent, and Web sites dropped to 82 percent.

According to the FBI's figures, California leads all states with the greatest number of complaints, followed by Texas, Florida, New York (www.iownthebrooklynbridge.com), Washington, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia (www.virginiaisforsuckers.com), and Michigan. It's uncertain which award California qualifies for with its leading status: State with the Most Victims, State with the Most Complainers, or both. Probably it's just State with the Most People. And where are the people being complained about? Most of the alleged perpetrators are in — you guessed it — California (18 percent), followed by Florida (8 percent), and New York and Texas (both with 7 percent each).

The Federal Trade Commission last year released its own Top 10 “Dot-Cons,� with online auctions at the top of their list as well (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/online/dotcons.htm). This past April the FTC announced it was entering into a partnership with the International Marketing Supervision Network (www.imsnricc.org). The IMSN has been overseeing international marketing since 1992, and conducts what it calls “Sweep Days,� during which participants prowl the Net, looking for Web sites that look shady or fraudulent. Those sites are then sent scathing e-mail reminding them that fraud on the Internet is still fraud. The FTC and IMSN have joined forces to create…a Web site! At www.econsumer.gov the tired, the poor, and the scammed can fill out an online complaint form — if they haven't already done so at the FTC, FBI, or NFIC.

It looks as though there will be plenty of people filling out those forms. A March 2001 survey of Internet users conducted by MarketFacts TeleNation Inc. for US SEARCH, an online provider of public record information on individuals and businesses, found that almost 35 percent consider online fraud a “severe or significant� problem (www.ussearch.com). The good news for online scammers and complaint processors: Although only 4 percent think Internet fraud isn't a problem, 22 percent believe that such activity occurs infrequently, and another 35 percent aren't even aware that there are risks to transacting business online. That's a sizable pool of fish to shoot at. And, they're fat fish too. In another finding that's sure to comfort online crooks everywhere, 32.5 percent of those with incomes over $75,000 are unconcerned about online fraud, as opposed to 18 percent of those making between $25,000 and $50,000. One odd finding from the survey: While 39 percent of respondents in the Northeast found online fraud to be significant, just 6 percent of those in the South agreed that it is a serious problem.

As ground-breaking and revolutionary as digital technology is, it hasn't exactly been inspiring new scams. That hasn't been necessary as people keep falling for the same old scams dressed up in binary clothing. One of the most successful online frauds is the classic Nigerian Letter, explained in detail at the Internet Scambusters' Web site (www.scambusters.org). This site is one of the places to go to if you wonder whether the bulk e-mail you got is really going to make you rich just for divulging your Social Security number. It's also the place to recommend to that annoying friend who keeps sending you chain e-mail about House Bill 602 — the one that's going to levy a tax of 5 cents on every e-mail message sent through the Internet. This particular hoax can be found in the “Urban Legend� section of the Scambuster site, a vastly entertaining guide to both human gullibility and cleverness.

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