Nigerian princes, FBI warnings about child pornography and cheap pills to enhance your sex life are a dime a dozen online. While most people know to avoid these scams, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) has determined that almost 300,000 Americans in 2012 did not. Their ignorance cost them more than $500 million, collectively.
IC3 is a government organization that comes from a joint venture between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. Every year, it releases a comprehensive report about cybercrime in the United States, and the results for 2012 were not encouraging. Cybercrime was up 8.3 percent over 2011.
Complaints streamed in from 289,874 people, of whom 114,908 (about 40 percent) reported having lost money to an online scam. Each scam victim lost, on average, $4,573, leading to an overall figure of $525,441,110 lost to cybercrime in 2012.
Gender-wise, cybercrime is an equal opportunist, with 149,601 male and 140,273 female complainants. In terms of age, those under 20 and those over 60 did not suffer much, but that may be because they lack money to spend online and don't use the Internet very much, respectively.
The 20-39 demographic represented 39 percent of victims, while those ages 40-50 represented 43 percent. In effect, both millennials and their parents are equally likely to fall for an online scam.
Although California placed first in gullible Internet denizens, the East Coast fared the worst overall. New York, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia all fell well within the top 10 states with the most complainants.
IC3 reported seven main types of email scams: auto fraud, FBI impersonation, intimidation/extortion, hit man, scareware/ransomware, real estate fraud and romance.
Auto fraud and real estate fraud are both simple updates of classic scams: Pretend you need to sell a car/house right away for well under market value, then pocket the cash and disappear.
FBI impersonation and romance scams promise something great in exchange for just a little bit of money. Scammers pretending to represent FBI agents often concoct elaborate tales of overseas wealth that require only a small initial investment, much like the well-worn Nigerian prince scam. Romance scammers pretend to find the victim attractive, and request money or gifts before disappearing. [See also: America's Top 10 Least Secure Cities ]
The remaining three – intimidation/extortion, hit man and scareware/ransomware are actually quite malicious, and play on fear rather than the promise of reward.
Intimidation scams often involve phone calls from scammers claiming to represent software companies, requesting hundreds of dollars to fix imaginary user interface problems.
In a hit man scam, a supposed killer emails a victim, claiming that someone has put a price on his or her head, but can buy off the hit man with enough money.
Ransomware often pretends to be a government organization, such as the FBI, that has detected illegally downloaded material on a user's computer. The user must pay a "fine" to unlock his or her system.
One might expect cybercrime to abate as users become savvier, but this has not been the case so far. In order for the IC3's 2013 report to show improvement, users will have to take everything they read on the Internet with a grain of salt — including, ironically, the IC3 report itself.
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