Scam artists target cellphones as cybercrimes climb
Complaints of cybercrime topped 314,000 in 2011 — up 3.4 percent from the previous year. The newest frontier for the scam artists is mobile phones.
Internet Crime Complaint Center: For details or to report a cybercrime, go to: www.ic3.gov.
Do Not Call registry: For information on limiting telemarketing calls, go to www.donotcall.gov.
Addicted as we are to our online life and our mobile devices, it's no surprise that a growing number of cybercriminals are lurking out there with us.
Their newest target is our cellphones.
Complaints of cybercrime topped 314,000 in 2011 — up 3.4 percent from the previous year, according to a recent report issued from the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership of the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Online crime occurs in varied forms, from identity theft that uses personal information to commit fraud, to phony job schemes involving bad check deposits, to "romance scams" that seduce the lovelorn to send money to a pseudo-suitor.
Nationwide, the average victim who filed a complaint last year was duped out of $4,187, reported the center, known as IC3.
Cybercrime is thought to be a much larger problem than the numbers released last week suggest.
Internet crime is "grossly underreported" nationally, said William Hinerman, IC3's unit chief. "We know there are tens of millions of computer users in the United States and everybody who gets email, gets spam."
In announcing the annual Internet crime statistics, the center's deputy director, Ken Brooks, said he was "excited" by the increase in complaints — because it means more Americans are aware of online crime and realize they can report it.
California, the nation's most populous state, posted the highest total number of Internet crime complaints last year, with 34,169. Next came Florida, then Texas, New York and Ohio.
Based on complaints per 100,000 population, the areas reporting the most fraud were Alaska, District of Columbia, New Jersey, Nevada and Colorado. Washington state ranked 10th.
California ranked last when it came to reported losses per 100,000 population, at $14.73. That compares with Washington, D.C., which ranked No. 1 with $1,119.70 in losses per hundred thousand people. Washington state ranked 35th, at $56.24.
While cybercrime has been around for years, the newest frontier for scam artists is mobile phones, the IC3 said.
And it's fertile territory. According to a recent Pew survey, about 83 percent of U.S. adults have a cellphone; of those, an estimated 42 percent have smartphones that can access email and the Internet.
Michael Parker, a retired rancher in Sacramento, has already seen thieves sneak onto his T-Mobile cellphone. Last month, he had two text messages, purportedly from Wal-Mart, declaring he'd "won" a $1,000 gift card. To claim his prize, he was instructed to click on a website.
Parker didn't take the bite. "Being a cynic helps," he said. "I'm not a Wal-Mart shopper, so that was one tipoff it was a scam."
Instead of clicking on the link, he called a local Wal-Mart manager to ask if the chain was giving out gift certificates by cellphone. The manager, Parker said, was "shocked" to hear about the attempted scam, which likely was an effort to install malware on his computer or trick him into giving bank-account or other information.
Parker also reported the phony texts to the sheriff's department and signed up his cellphone for the national "Do Not Call" registry, www.donotcall.gov.
Romance scams proved especially lucrative for scammers last year, according to IC3 statistics. At a rate of 15 complaints a day, these scams saw reported losses of roughly $138,000. The average victim's loss: $8,900.
How to avoid being swindled? The FBI's Bryant said individuals should "never give out any personal or financial information over the phone or Internet, unless he or she has personally initiated the communication."
Verify the source of online offers or requests for personal account information.