How our one thousand scam reports have kept pace with changing trends: Internet Scambusters #1,000
This 1,000th issue of Scambusters gives us an opportunity to look back on more than two decades of scam reporting.
We explain how scam trends have changed over that period, from solo con artists to organized crime, aided by the internet and advancing technology.
But we'll also tell you about how organizations are fighting back and how everyone on the side of right can play a part in this battle.
Let's get started…
A Two-Decade Milestone For Scam Reporting
Remember the late 90s? Maybe not. But that's when Scambusters first hit the trail that's made us one of today's most enduring and respected consumer reports on internet fraud.
With this issue, we've reached the major milestone of 1,000 weekly reports that have helped tens of thousands of Americans steer clear of hackers and con merchants. We've likely saved readers millions of dollars in the process.
We've been reporting on scams and explaining how to beat them over the course of more than two decades. But while we've been steadfast and consistent in delivering the scam news, the environment in which we operate has changed massively.
How The Scam Scene Has Changed
Back when we started, no one had heard of scam targets like cybercurrency or ransomware, and internet users numbered around 60 million. Today, there are more than five times that number. But internet crime has risen much faster.
Some of the scams that were around in the late 90s are still with us today, although they've morphed into more complex and cunning shapes.
At the turn of the millennium, two of the biggest tricks were lottery and advance payment scams.
Tens of thousands of consumers were fooled into thinking they'd won a sweepstake fortune and handed over a small fortune to try to get their hands on it.
In the same way, many of us were invited to help pick up millions of nonexistent dollars from Nigerian princes, government officials, or long-lost relatives but, again, were told we had to pay to get the cash.
In some cases, victims also provided details of their bank accounts, which set the stage for identity theft, one of the biggest online crimes today.
We also had pyramid or Ponzi scams where investors had to persuade others to put their money in, until the whole thing collapsed.
All of these tricks, plus fake work-from-home schemes, romance scams, and phony charities are still with us today but operating on a much bigger scale as the internet has enabled cheap and widespread communication.
One of the biggest differences between then and now is that most scammers were individuals or small groups. The main exceptions were pump-and-dump gangs, but they used the phone and newsletters to try to persuade people to buy worthless stocks.
As the 21st century began and home computing took off, we started to see a growth in identity theft through password stealing. Remember those days when we innocently used the name of our pets or some other easy-to-guess keywords? Or just half a dozen letters?
It's a different story today. We need long strings of random characters and, often, password managers and extra passcodes, known as multi-factor authentication (MFA). We have biometric technology for facial and fingerprint recognition.
But now, instead of guessing our passwords, crooks can go straight to them by hacking into corporate networks. And, unlike the old days, organized crime gangs, mainly from Eastern Europe, India, and China -- but also Western countries -- are the big-time players.
Stealing and selling passwords and financial account details has become big business, not only through hacking but also the exploding use of phishing -- trawling via emails, SMS texts, phones, and fake websites -- and phony tech support scams.
Crooks realized they could now exploit their ability to access computer systems, both at home and in business. Once they mastered this, they could steal confidential data at will and install malware.
In turn, malware enabled them to link infected computers into massive networks (botnets) for sending out spam and even more phishing attempts. Finally, the past two or three years have spawned ransomware -- the ability to lock individual computers or entire networks and demand payment to unlock them.
Illegal access doesn't end there either. Now we are seeing hackers and tech scammers use artificial intelligence (AI) to increase their chances of success.
Alongside this, the steady rise in internet usage, the use of smartphones and, most recently, the COVID pandemic, have fed an astronomical increase in online shopping scams.
These ecommerce tricks include fake websites and ads, counterfeit products, selling of nonexistent products, advance fee demands, phony buyers who never pay, and much more.
Finally, among trends we might never have imagined back in the late 90s, the launch and growth of social media -- mainly Facebook and Twitter -- has become a vehicle for scams, email, and "like" harvesting, and the spread of the scourge of the 2020s, fake news, and videos.
Advancing technology has also seen the birth of virtual (crypto) currency scams and illegal access to network-linked devices such as smart TVs and security cameras -- known as the Internet of Things (IoT).
It's a distressing picture.
But all of this is not to say that the scammers have had everything their way.
Organizations like the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the IRS, USPS, plus financial and consumer watchdogs have responded with force.
We've seen new laws including the introduction of the Do Not Call Registry, increased penalties, the use of artificial intelligence, enhanced security software, and global law enforcement cooperation.
Of course, we can't encompass the entire scam world in one report. Tricks like ATM and gas station skimmers, phony debt management, healthcare scams, fake government loan and grant programs, travel and rental scams, business email compromise, and many more have been reported by Scambusters over more than two decades.
They have taken a terrifying toll on society.
One thing many consumer scams have in common is that they often target the most vulnerable, desperate, and gullible. Evidence shows that most of us fall into one of these groups, notably the gullible. Even security experts have been conned into falling for convincing scams or letting the hackers in.
Those of us on the side of right, like the Scambusters team, play our part in trying to contain and defeat the crooks. It's a never-ending battle which you too help, for example by letting others know about Scambusters and your own experiences.
Thank you for making Scambusters your go-to resource for scam reports. Here's to the next 1,000 issues. The fight goes on!
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!