E-Mail Alert: Beware Online Phishing Scams


There is a scary form of identity theft called “phishing” that winds up having the victim contribute to the victimization. The unwary target provides all the information necessary for criminals to loot the person. No need for fancy identification papers. All the criminal needs is a bit of carelessness on your part, and, wow, they now can do a job on you.

What happens is that the criminals send you an e-mail message claiming to be from someone with whom you already do business and warn you of possible criminal activity. And, of course, they provide easy access for you to prevent it from happening, and that provides their opening.

How do I know? Because recently, I was targeted twice. The first time was a message from Amazon.com, or at least that’s what it said in the e-mail I received: “Someone has been trying to get access to your account.” Amazon wanted me to change my password, and even had a link that could bring me right to the place where I could do so.

Of course, everything was fake. I would be going in, and the first thing I would be doing was typing in my username followed by my real password. Then, I could presumably change it. But the crooks then have my real password. Had I followed the directions, I might have had thousands of dollars’ worth of goods delivered to postal boxes all over the country. What I decided to do was to turn off my computer completely. The next day, I went to the real Amazon.com and changed my password separately. So far, I have not been victimized there.

Then, a week ago, I received an “emergency e-mail” from my bank, saying that it needed to verify my information and, again, providing a link to a helpful web site. It is not that difficult a trick to reroute once you press that little button on the mouse. You would think you were at the bank’s web site; it looks exactly like the real one. And, of course, you would type in your username and password. Chances are, by the next day, you would have nothing left.

I went to my local branch the next day with a printout of the e-mail. I was quickly given the e-mail address of the bank’s own investigators for that kind of thing. When individual banks create their own web sites to report this type of stuff, you know how common the crime has become.

Identity theft is a major problem in this country. Although Hollywood decided to make fun of it in a recent mediocre movie, it can destroy your credit, and it can take months, if not years, to fully restore it. And this particular form of theft is a very safe one for the criminals. They have fooled their victims into providing the information, and done it seamlessly, never directly involving themselves with the individual and, using computers, are able to access accounts again without meeting anyone — far safer than if they actually used a credit card in a store where they might be stopped or photographed.

When we watch television or movies, there are times we see a suspicious clerk calling the police or getting some of those photos. Watch any of them, and it looks like we live in a surveillance state. With phishing, someone who lives outside the country can have access to your account in the middle of the night while you are sleeping and write checks to dummy companies in other countries, which then shift the money to banks that pride themselves on the privacy of their clients.

The best way to stop this is to be extremely cautious when you receive any e-mail (or even phone call, although that is less likely now since the phisher can send out thousands of e-mails at one time and hope for even a 1 percent return) that asks you for information. We have all been warned about giving out Social Security numbers to anyone, but take care when someone you’ve done business with wants to confirm information that you would not want a criminal to know.

Keep your money safe this holiday season, and, please, shop our local merchants.