Good news and bad news in the never-ending battle against scammers
It's been a good news / bad news kind of week in the world of Internet crime. First, the good news: A huge, online forum trading in stolen passwords and other information is shut down by the FBI.
But the bad news: In separate studies, researchers show how easy it is to turn a computer into a "zombie" and how feasible it is to capture key strokes using simple electronic eavesdropping equipment.
Also in this week's round-up of the scam headlines, we warn of a conman who travels the US telling tall stories, a highly organized checks scam and a phishing expedition that hauled in a super-catch.
1. Police shut down $70m "one-stop-shop" for stolen IDs
The good news: Law enforcement and justice score a major victory with around 60 arrests and the shutdown of a secret, international website used for selling stolen identities and other online crime.
Police say the site, linked to a shadowy organization appropriately called the Dark Market Forum, sold passwords and other personal information, including banking details.
Membership was by invitation only and the site, described as a "one stop shop" for online crooks, operated for more than three years.
The FBI, who infiltrated the organization and identified the key users, says it had 2,500 members and probably accounted for around $70m of fraud.
But there are still plenty more fraudsters on the loose, trading stolen information. Visit for more on identity theft and how you can protect yourself.
2. $24,000 bogus degrees scam foiled
More good news: Spanish police arrest 27 people buying and selling bogus college degrees that would enable con artists to pose as doctors, lawyers and other professionals.
These weren't just cheap bits of paper either. They sold for $24,000 apiece and were issued by a phony "academy" that issued graduation certificates buyers could present to Spain's education department for recognition, allowing the holders to practice there.
Most of those arrested, across more than a dozen cities, are people who bought the fakes -- mainly medical and physical therapy "degrees" -- along with two men who ran the "academy."
Read more about fake college degrees here.
3. It's true: walls have ears!
The bad news: There used to be an old wartime saying -- "walls have ears." Now researchers in Switzerland prove it's possible to capture keystrokes on a PC just by "listening" through a wall.
They set up an antenna that can read electromagnetic noise when the keys on a wired keyboard are pressed.
The antenna, which can be as much as 60 or 70 feet away from the keyboard, and even in another room, is hooked to its own PC and accurately reproduces the key strokes on another machine.
They video their efforts as proof and say: "We conclude that wired computer keyboards sold in the stores generate compromising emanations (mainly because of the cost pressures in the design).
"Hence, they are not safe to transmit sensitive information."
The solution: It may not affect most of us today but it's a good thing to know. The implication -- though the researchers don't say this specifically -- is that the cheaper the keyboard, the more vulnerable it is to this eavesdropping.
Did you know, key-loggers may be at work at your airport? Check out this article on travel scams for more info.
4. How long to take over your PC? Five minutes!
More bad news: The average time it takes to infect a computer and seize control, linking it into a "botnet" network of "zombie" PCs, is just five minutes, according to new research.
Infections come via attachments and downloads from malicious websites -- threats we often warn about -- and take invisible control of a PC, linking into a network of up to 500,000 machines that spew out spam.
The solution: Good antivirus and firewall programs are the first line of defense, though recent tests showed that no program is anywhere near 100% effective.
And, of course, beware of email attachments or phony links that might take you to a malware site. Learn more about anti virus protection here.
5. Smooth talking conman travels US with tales of woe
The scam: He's left a trail of anger and misery from Scottsdale, AZ to Albany, NY. Now, a trickster shows up in his home state of Texas to fleece a couple out of 100 bucks with a bogus tale of woe.
Wearing a yarmulke (Jewish skullcap) he shows up on the doorstep in the town of Flower Mound claiming to be looking for a rabbi who lives locally, from whom he plans to borrow money for an air ticket.
He says he has to fly to St Louis, where his father just died and his mother is critically ill. In fact, his parents are in good health and divorced.
But this is just one of hundreds of plausible tales the scammer has spun on travels right around the US, netting him thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of dollars, especially from church organizations.
An arrest warrant is issue in Boone County, IL, for violation of a protection order.
But police say it's tougher to make charges stick for conning the public.
They say it's no different to when a panhandler spins a bogus tale for your cash at the freeway off-ramp. You give it voluntarily.
The solution: You have been warned. People who tell a sad story for money to help them are nearly always lying, even if they really are down on their luck.
6. Bogus check squad targets small stores
The scam: In Calhoun County, AL, a well-organized team of tricksters bilks a fortune out of small businesses with a coordinated bogus checks sting.
They target mainly Latino convenience stores, arriving in large numbers, all brandishing supposed paychecks. Clamoring for attention, they intimidate or confuse store clerks into accepting the checks without proper verification.
One store owner cashed $18,000 worth of the bogus checks - just three months after losing $8,000 in a similar scam.
The solution: These days, fewer and fewer stores accept checks. It's a tough decision, especially for a struggling, small outfit. But it's really the only long term solution. Even identity documents could be stolen or forged.
7. Phishers catch French President!
The scam: We wrote last week about how scammers target anyone, even law enforcement officers, VIPs and other dignitaries. Well, here's more proof.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy is somehow tricked into giving his username and password to thieves using a phishing attack.
Details of how they did this haven't been released but the crooks discover enough to steal money from his bank account. They use a common trick of just drawing out small amounts, hoping they won't be noticed.
The solution: The trick of withdrawing small amounts is worth noting; it underlines the importance of carefully checking your bank statements each month.
This week's headlines round-up shows that whether they're playing on your fears or your sympathies, scammers know which buttons to press, Our stories also underline how well organized and profitable the scamming business is. Happily, sometimes even the big guys eventually get caught. But, on the other side, so, apparently, do the VIPs.