One of 2019’s biggest stories will be bigger in 2020: Cyber scams are on the rise.
“As people increasingly conduct business and live their lives online, more and more criminals are leveraging the internet to steal,” reports Forbes’ Stu Sjouwerman.
The dirty rotten scammers continue to evolve, too, targeting businesses, government organizations and individuals alike with increasingly sophisticated schemes.
One is ransomware — malicious software that blocks access to computers until money is paid.
Scammers also send phony “phishing” emails — often spoofing emails from big retailers — with fraudulent links or attachments that, when clicked, give scammers unfettered access to computer users’ data.
Google “ransomware attack” and you’ll see a sizable list of big companies and entire cities that have been completely shut down by scammers.
They also spoof text messages. Apparently from reputable companies, such as banks, these messages trick individuals into revealing passwords or credit card numbers.
Scammers continue to succeed with the good old telephone, too. I received a call this year from a man claiming he was from the Social Security Administration, who told me my account was blocked and he would help me reactivate it.
Aware that Social Security never makes phone calls (unless you’re having a legitimate conversation with it), I knew what the scammer was after: my full name, birthdate, address and Social Security number.
I asked him how he could sleep at night, knowing he was hurting innocent people. He cussed at me and hung up.
The greatest worry about scammers is that elderly people are especially at risk. They’re more trusting of callers from government agencies and more likely to fall for one especially mendacious tax scam.
Using phishing techniques, scammers access data on a taxpayer’s computer, then use that stolen information to file a fraudulent tax return in the taxpayer’s name and have the refund — often larger than is actually owed — deposited into the taxpayer’s actual bank account.
According to Intuit, the scammers then “contact their victims, telling them the money was mistakenly deposited into their accounts and asking them to return it.”
Many victims, fearful of the IRS, readily comply.
According to Pew Research, Americans view cybercrime as their greatest security concern. But what are government agencies doing to combat it?
Americans are often victimized by scammers operating from elsewhere in the world. How can the bad guys be tracked down and forced to make amends?
Nation-states are often behind sophisticated attacks on organizations. Russian-financed scammers are actively targeting our utilities, election systems and other systems.
Creating new laws and agencies to combat cybercrime is a daunting challenge. Cybersecurity bills passed by the U.S. House move slowly through the Senate. Even if the Senate passes them and the president signs them, regulators could take months to draft and implement actual policies. Scammers aren’t bogged down by such bureaucratic processes.
What it comes down to is that every individual must learn to detect and avoid cyber scams. The Department of Homeland Security has helpful info at https://www.dhs.gov/stopthinkconnect-cyber-tips.
Always verify that an email, text or link is legitimate before you click. Always be suspicious - because that’s the only way that cyber scams won’t be an even bigger story in the new year.
Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist. Send comments to Tom at Tom@TomPurcell.com.