What were the top scams in 2015 -- and what's on the horizon for 2016?: Internet Scambusters #679
Identity theft and phishing remain in pole position in our annual review of top scams for both 2015 and 2016.
But beneath the surface, some new threats are emerging, while others become slightly less of a risk.
Find out all the details in this week's issue.
Now, here we go...
New Threats Emerge in Our Top Scams List for 2016
Some things never change, yet new things are always happening -- that just about sums up our annual list of top scams for the past year and the coming one.
When we look back on our predictions from 2015, we found that most things turned out as we forecast, but there was still room for a couple of surprises.
Let's take a quick look at how the situation unfolded as the months rolled by before we head into 2016's forecast, with a couple of nasty trends on the horizon.
Top Scams in 2015
Here's our list for the past year, with the actual ranking, followed by our original, forecast position in parentheses.
It's important to point out that this isn't a statistical chart. It's based on our detailed monitoring of scams and reports from security organizations, giving us an overall picture of the scam scene.
1. (1) Phishing and identity theft. No surprises here. This crime has topped our list every single year and with more data breaches than ever, it's likely that 2015 was a record year for identity theft.
As evidence, our research shows that the underworld selling price for individual credit card details has fallen to around 15 cents a pop from a couple of dollars a few years ago.
This black market is awash with stolen information.
2. (2) Hit and run scams. We established this category last year to cover the broad sweep of scams that involve demands for instant payment -- usually in the form of supposed unpaid bills from utility companies and fines for supposed failure to turn up for jury duty.
3. (3) Lottery and sweepstakes scams. Despite a couple of high profile court cases where perpetrators of phony lotteries have been brought to justice, this crime continues unabated.
It particularly targets seniors and most of the scams originate in Canada or the Caribbean, notably Jamaica.
4. (4) Malware. Two big trends have kept this high in the charts in 2015 -- growth in ransomware that locks up PCs until the 'ransom' is paid, and an explosion in viruses and spyware on Android smartphones.
5. (6) Grandparent and imposter scams. We think there's actually been a small drop in scams in which crooks pose as relatives in distress but this has been more than offset by the huge surge in scammers pretending to be from the IRS and demanding payment of unpaid tax bills.
6. (5) Bogus online sites and telesales. High levels of publicity for the crackdown on automated robocalls has had some success -- not so much because crooks have stopped making the calls but more because consumers are aware that they're scams.
Likewise, Internet browsers are also getting somewhat smarter at spotting phony or dangerous websites and then warning users.
7. (7) Advance fee scams. Little change in the incidence of this trick that usually involves victims receiving dud checks for supposed services or employment and then being asked to wire back part of the payment before it's discovered that the check is a fake.
8. (10) Investment scams. We thought interest rates might rise in 2015 making bogus high-return schemes less attractive, but that didn't happen.
Plus, it's not just the frequency of these scams that pushed them up the charts but also the scale of them, often involving well-known celebrities.
9. (9) Economy-related scams. Most of these con tricks seem to be targeting small businesses, with offers of cut-price loans and loan restructuring.
There's also been a steady flow of bogus offers of loans and grants, mainly aimed at students.
10. (8) Healthcare and Affordable Care Act scams. The introduction of the so-called Obamacare legislation sparked a rash of fake health insurance offers, but this was not as dramatic as we expected.
Now, let's take a look at how we see things unfolding in the coming year.
Top Scam Predictions for 2016
Here's our forecast, in Top 10 order, with the actual 2015 outturn in parentheses.
1. (1) Phishing and ID theft. We see no real signs of improvement. Even though security software is getting stronger, the crooks seem to stay one step ahead, with new techniques for hacking and for fooling people into giving away their confidential information.
2. (5 & 6) Imposter scams. We decided to roll the hit-and-run and grandparent/imposter scams into a single category because they all involve the crooks pretending to be someone they're not.
We think the IRS unpaid tax scam will continue to be strong in 2016, sadly with evidence that crooks are starting to use threats of violence or jail to force their victims to pay up.
In one outrageous case we encountered recently, victims were told they would be beheaded if they didn't pay their tax bill!
3. (3) Lottery and sweepstakes scams. The message isn't getting through! The aging population is simply creating a bigger target for the scammers, and names of susceptible people are being passed around on so-called 'sucker lists.'
These victims may get dozens of calls a day, while others simply refuse to believe it's a scam.
It's an area where we all must do more to alert and monitor vulnerable people.
4. (4) Malware. As we said earlier, crooks are getting better at tricking people into thinking their messages are genuine.
2015 saw a huge surge in crooks posing as Microsoft support techs wanting remote access to victims' PCs, and the company has recently issued a new warning that the crime is on the increase.
Also, as people increasingly use mobile devices in place of PCs, they're often unaware of how vulnerable some of them may be to malware and so fail to install security software.
5. (6) Bogus online sites and telesales. There could be a jump in this category as crooks switch to making random robocalls to cell phones.
Also, as of this writing, debt-collection robocalls to cell phones are not outlawed, although there's been a move in Congress to do so.
6. (-) Dating scams. Out of nowhere, we're seeing more and more reports of 'lonely-hearts' falling for scams in which they pay tens of thousands of dollars to their fake online dates.
In a sense, it may seem like just another imposter scam but there's more to it than that.
As the recent hacking of the Ashley Madison dating site demonstrated, once crooks get their hands on member details, they potentially could use them for all manner of tricks including identity theft and extortion.
7. (8) Investment scams. Interest rates may rise slightly but they'll stay at historic lows, while continuing stock market instability might lure investors into 'sure thing' scams. Ponzi schemes, reverse mortgages, real estate con tricks, and private stock offerings are all on the rise.
8. (7) Advance fee scams. Financially hard-pressed students are in the sights of the scammers, with offers of phony jobs, especially 'secret shopper' scams.
Victims are younger, inexperienced and, therefore, potentially more easily fooled.
9. (-) Social media scams. They're mostly harmless in the sense that victims may not lose money, but 'like' harvesting, where victims can supposedly win a big car or get a free gift card for 'sharing' a page are rocketing.
Links to supposed sensational stories on social media sites may also lead to malware and ID theft.
10. (9) Economy-related scams. With an election looming we might see all sorts of scare stories using the 'get-it-while-you-can' tactic for grants and loans, so this isn't disappearing from our top scams chart just yet!
Alert of the week
Watch out for a new spam attack posing as a tracking notification from UPS.
A Microsoft Word attachment is said to contain a copy of the shipping label but if you click on it, it'll download malware onto your PC.
Even if you're expecting a UPS delivery, don't click -- instead, check it at ups.com
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!