By email or hurricane, floods spell bad news -- plus new ID theft laws detailed
The Russians are coming. No, seriously. That's the word among email security and spam experts. A flood of malicious email from Russia is turning up in inboxes all over the world, most notably in the US.
We have more details in this week's roundup of the scam headlines. Plus, talking of floods, we're sorry but not surprised to discover that the Hurricane Ike scams we recently warned about are already adding to the misery of storm victims in a big way.
Also in this week's Scamlines, we report on new laws to hit back at identity thieves, a sneaky camera trick to capture PIN numbers and, staying with the camera theme, a conspiracy in Italy that leads to thousands of motorists being photographed driving through stop lights.
And how about being tricked into paying for someone else's soda? We've got that covered too.
1. Unreadable mystery mail tries to install malware
The scam: Emails in a strange script begin to show up in your inbox. Some of the letters look familiar; others seem to be reversed. It's Russian! But is it important? No, it's spam.
According to net mail watchers, email spam using the Russian Cyrillic script is on the rise. Rapidly. And, unless you can read it, you may wonder why it's being sent out millions at a time.
The explanation seemingly is that the emails contain links that download malware to 'robotize' your computer -- linking it in with millions of other machines that have been taken over to form giant networks.
The plan? You guessed it: to use these "zombie" PCs to send out yet more spam.
Maybe the Russians are hoping that curiosity will prompt some people into clicking the links. More likely, the crooks are just sending the mail to every legitimate email address they can acquire. After all, every recipient is a potential victim.
The solution: You don't click on links in messages from people you don't know, do you? Here's another idea experts suggest: If you know how to set up rules or filters in your email application, program it to search incoming mail for one of those reversed characters and automatically toss the offending message into the trash.
Find more advice on how to reduce or stop spam here.
2. New law clamps down on ID thieves and spyware crooks
The news: New laws recently approved by the US Congress make things tougher for cybercrime scammers.
The anti-spyware bill introduces several important changes to the law. These include:
- Allowing federal prosecutions where an identity thief and the victim are in the same jurisdiction area. Previously, the feds could only prosecute if the crook used interstate or overseas communications.
- Victims can seek restitution for the time and money they burn up trying to fix their credit after an ID theft.
- Stealing, deleting or releasing data from someone else's computer becomes a crime. So does "protection" -- threatening to damage a computer if the victim refuses to meet an extortion demand
- Stiffer penalties for installing spyware and keystroke loggers on someone's machine.
3. Auto recall message fronts vehicle warranty sales
The scam: Auto owners throughout the Midwest receive a postcard announcing a safety recall of their vehicles. The card carries a 1-800 number, inviting people to phone for more details. The number turns out to be a firm offering auto warranties; there is no safety recall.
The solution: Two safeguards here. Always check any recall notification with your auto dealer. And beware of bogus or overpriced vehicle warranties -- mostly these are put out by scammers who check vehicle registration dates and contact owners when their manufacturer's warranty is about the expire.
4. Alleged ticket scammer nabbed after three years
The scam: Can you trust your co-workers? You may think you know them but 19 employees of a North Haven, CT, auto parts firm find out the hard way that's not always the case.
They each hand over $150 to a colleague who says he can get tickets to the 2005 Super Bowl game between the Patriots and the Eagles. And most of them fly to Florida after being told they can collect the tickets there.
But there are no tickets -- and no co-worker to explain what happened.. Three years later, North Haven police track down and charge the guy. He denies the charges claiming someone stole his identity.
The solution: We'll let the courts decide on his claim. But the employees certainly handed over their money to a co-worker. The case underlines that, as crime victims often discover, the person they thought they knew turns out to be quite different. It pays to be skeptical.
5. Are you paying for someone else's soda?
The scam: Some cons are complex and clever. Others are simple and downright cheeky -- but they work just as well. A blogger reports just such a scam:
She buys several items at a local convenience store and the clerk inflates the total price. Challenged by the shopper, the clerk makes light of it and jokes about the extra amount covering the cost of a soda for her.
The point is that we generally accept the bottom line that someone charges, without checking the register, the receipt or doing the mental arithmetic, especially if the price seems about right.
The solution: If you can see the register, monitor it as the clerk keys or scans in each item and challenge anything that doesn't look right. Ask for a receipt and always check it before you leave the store.
6. Storm scammers doing big business
The scam: As we predicted and warned in our Scambusters article #299 on hurricane scams for 2008, con artists are out in force taking advantage of the misery and confusion caused by Hurricane Ike.
In Sherman, TX, for instance, a scammer, claiming to be an evacuee, approaches people in a parking lot asking for money to get him back to Galveston. Unfortunately for him, one of his potential victims is an off-duty cop -- but he manages to flee while the officer is checking out his license plate number.
And in Conroe, TX, crooks posing as city employees tell residents their water supply is contaminated and they must vacate their homes while the supply is turned off and checked. Then they steal from the empty homes.
The solution: Recheck our article mentioned above. The Texas Attorney General's Office has also issued warnings about price gouging and a checklist for residents to use with contractors offering to do repairs.
7. Look up before you pay
The scam: In Coventry, England, a trio of crooks install hidden cameras above gas station service counters so they can record PIN numbers as customers key them in.
They either own the gas stations or have bribed existing owners to let them set up the cameras. They use sophisticated electronic devices also to capture the actual card numbers and set up a card cloning factory that nets them an estimated £3.5 million ($6 million).
The solution: These scammers have been caught and jailed but this is the sort of thing that could happen anywhere you use your cards -- from ATMs to gas stations and stores. So, look up before you pay and lean over the machine as you key in your PIN.
8. Another cheek-of-the-week: Italian traffic signals
The scam: Last week it was the Mom who allegedly stole her daughter's ID and enrolled at a local high school. This week we bring you another cheeky trick that takes some nerve.
A firm of traffic signal manufacturers in Italy rigs its own lights so the amber signal is only on for a couple of seconds, snapping thousands of rushing motorists driving the following stop light.
Apparently the firm was working the trick with 30 local councils who were seeking a revenue boost by issuing extra traffic offense tickets! The makers were taking a big kick-back for their compliance. Fortunately for motorists, local police were not in on the deal and arrested company and council officials.
The solution: In most countries, the law makes perfectly clear how long an amber light should show. Know your law and be prepared to challenge -- with appropriate professional advice, of course.
Our reports from England and Italy this week underline that corruption and scamming isn't just the preserve of individual crooks. Sometimes businesses and even local governments are involved. Trust is a precious commodity and we unfortunately need to be wary before handing it out.