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Spot and avoid the latest online scams

Among the recent targets of Web criminals are students, renters, and romance-seekers; everyone is at risk though, so keep your defenses up, up, up.


Netflix users are receiving bogus e-mails telling them their account has been suspended and instructing them to call a toll-free number to regain access. The fake Netflix/Microsoft support person tricks them into giving the criminal access to their computer, as Techlicious's Fox Van Allen explains.

Not only is their personal information stolen, the victims are blackmailed into paying the crooks $400 to "fix" the problem.

Here's the real solution: Don't ever click a link in an e-mail message. Instead, open your browser and enter the URL in the address field manually. You just can't trust e-mail links, not even ones you think are from a trustworthy source.

Also, neither Netflix or Microsoft is ever likely to instruct their customers to call a toll-free number for any reason, let alone for technical support.

Web scams continue to proliferate

In addition to Netflix users, criminals are targeting would-be renters, child-care operators, romance-seekers, even tax payers.

And that's just this week.

Which just happens to be National Consumer Protection Week, a program involving dozens of public and private consumer groups with a goal of helping people "take full advantage of their consumer rights and make better-informed decisions."

In the spirit of informed decision making, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has compiled a list of 10 ways to avoid fraud. Of the 10 tips offered, the three I believe will deter most Web fraud attempts are, 1) don't send money to someone you don't know, 2) don't ever agree to deposit a check and wire money back, and 3) don't reply to messages that ask for your personal or financial information.

On the Yahoo Finance site, Brett Montgomery describes the four sneakiest scams of 2014 -- at least so far (the year is young): fake funeral notices, one-ring phone calls, sticky ATM keypads, and bogus fraud-recovery services.

The fake funeral notice uses the name of a recently deceased person and appears to be from a legitimate funeral home. The e-mail includes a link to what is purported to be an invitation to a remembrance service but is actually malware. Remember the rule about never clicking links in e-mails!

If you receive a phone call that stops after one ring, you may be tempted to call the number back. Don't do it! Even if the number appears to have a US area code, it may actually be for an expensive pay service likely located overseas, so you could be billed huge connection and per-minute fees.

The sticky ATM keypads caught me by surprise because the scam is so simple, and so easy to fall for. The crook finds a way to temporarily disable the Enter, Cancel, and Clear buttons on the ATM. When the person using the machine is unable to complete their transaction, they go into the bank to report the problem. Then the malefactor re-enables the key, scoops up the money that the user was attempting to withdraw, and takes off.

As terrible as it is to be scammed once, imagine the audacity of crooks who find people who have been victims of fraud and then offer to refund the money they lost, but only after the victims provide the fraudster with a bank or credit-card account into which they promise to deposit the stolen dough. Of course, no such deposit is made.

The FTC's OnGuard Online provides information on 15 categories of online scams, including lotteries and sweepstakes, fake checks, mystery shoppers, money transfers, and fake tech support.

You know not to respond when a Web ad offers a free security scan, right? Similarly, if someone calls you claiming to be from Microsoft Support or some other company and offers to help fix your computer, get a referee's whistle and blow it as loudly as you can in their ear.

Fight back against fraudsters

If you recognize a scam attempt or believe you're the victim of online scammers, you can file a complaint with the FTC if you're a US resident, or with econsumer.gov if you live elsewhere. You can reach the FTC's complaint department at the toll-free number 1877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). Your complaint will be added to the agency's Consumer Sentinel Network, which is accessed by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies for their investigations.

You can also file your complaint with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), which features an FAQ on the complaint-filing process. The National Association of Attorneys General provides links to and contact information for all 50 state attorneys general.

To read about recent fraud activities, peruse the FTC's Scam Alerts page, which lets you browse the scam notices by such topics as charity, debt relief, immigration, and phishing. Similarly, USA.gov's Internet Fraud page has links for reporting child pornography, identity theft, and Internet investment fraud.

Federal Trade Commission Scam Alert page
The Federal Trade Commission's Scam Alerts page keeps you up-to-date on the latest tricks of the fraudsters. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Many online scammers use Craigslist to perpetrate their crimes. The Craigslist's Avoiding Scams page has links to many fraud-reporting agencies as well as advice for spotting a scam, including examples of phishing e-mails.

Perhaps the most important caveat for Craigslist denizens is right at the top of the page, in bold and highlighted: Deal locally with folks you can meet in person. I would add that you meet them in a very public place, such as the lobby of your local police station to avoid being strong-armed at your designated rendezvous location.

The FindLaw site's Computer Scams FAQ page links to information for finding a consumer-protection agency in your area.

The site also explains the exceptions to the general rule that once you've lost your money, you can't get it back. Principal among these exceptions are disputing a fraudulent credit or debit charge, fighting bogus charges on your telephone bill, and asking your online auction site whether its insurance covers fraudulent transactions -- a long shot, perhaps, but worth a try.