Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition


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Computer Hoaxes and Scams

As long as humans have known that other humans can be taken advantage of, there have been scammers, con artists, and hoaxers. Before computers, these creatures led difficult lives. They had to find individual victims, spending time and money to make contacts. And they were limited in the number of potential victims they could reach at any one time. If they used mail, there was the cost of paper, envelopes, and postage—not to mention the time spent gathering names and addresses. And then came the Internet. With a few clicks of a mouse, one scam letter can be sent to thousands of recipients. Gathering email addresses can be automated. And here was gathered an enormous population of potential victims. Websites can act as virtual webs, entrapping those who wander in, with no effort on the fraudster’s part beyond creating the bogus content for the site.

Many people think commercial spam is the limit of online annoyances. In fact, there are several ways in which the unscrupulous have turned technology to their own advantage in many different ways. Some people get kicks out of causing annoyance to thousands. They may send hoax messages directing recipients to phone long-distance numbers in order to be removed from the list. Other hoaxers send email messages telling recipients how to stop spam by altering computer settings. Of course, what the unsuspecting victim gets is a computer that no longer works properly. These are all annoying and time-consuming tricks- but there are more serious trouble makers in cyberspace.

A number of criminals have used email and the Internet to bilk thousands of people out of millions of dollars. Emails may solicit contributions to phony charities or needy individuals. The most costly and famous of these schemes that prey on the desire to help others is called the Nigerian Scam. A message in broken English pleads for the financial help of the kind recipient. In all cases, the sender is a high-ranking official who has millions stashed in an inaccessible spot. If the recipient will wire money for the official’s escape from his ravaged country, he will receive a share of the money. The average loss from this scam alone is over $5000. Other scams involve the creation of fake escrow accounts. Phony auctions are created, and the buyers told to place payment in the account. Of course, the product paid for never arrives, and the escrow account turns out to be nonexistent.

More serious still are those crimes that steal financial information and passwords from web surfers. Websites may be used to lull people into believing that they are responding to surveys, or providing credit card information merely to prove they are 18. By stealing passwords, criminals can gain access to entire financial records. Identity theft is devastating to the victims and can take years to recover from. Perhaps the greatest threat comes from those who really want to wreck havoc. Today, airlines, banks, and municipal infrastructures are all tied into computer networks. The damage a determined cyber-criminal could cause is boundless.

The challenge of policing these schemes cannot be underrated. Victims may come from countries across the globe. Perpetrators can disguise not only their identities, but their geographical location. For now, the best protection users have is skepticism. If an email directs you to send the message on to everyone you know, chances are it’s a hoax, no matter how credible it sounds. For those who wish to participate in online auctions, calling the Better Business Bureau before bidding or paying can save money, time, and frustration. Refusing to give out credit card or other personal information to any request is mandatory. As computer use becomes even more wide-spread, chances are the scammers, hoaxers, and conartists will keep pace. Until there is a viable way to stop their activities, surfer beware.

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