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MIKE WENDLAND: 'Phishing' spam is latest bait from identity thieves

January 16, 2004

BY MIKE WENDLAND
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

As if those African fraud letters aren't enough, you can add a growing new scam to the problems of the Net: phishing.

A play on the word "fishing" as used by con artists to search for personal information they can use for identity theft scams, it's sweeping the Internet via e-mail.

I've received a slew of them in the last week. They arrive with official-looking graphics, pretending to be from PayPal, eBay and Citibank, saying something is wrong with your account and that you need to click a link and re-enter your registration or account information. (I've posted images of what they look like at www.mikesejournal.com/archives/002470.php.)

People who go along with the con and enter their personal information are giving criminals critical data they can use to buy stuff, get cash advances and sell your credit information to other thieves. It happens every day, and people fall for this much more than you'd realize.

There's another even more outrageous e-mail con that's going on. Headlined "Important notice," it advises that your credit card is being charged $234.67 for child pornography. If, the note says, you didn't order it, enter your credit card and expiration date and they'll cancel the charge. Right.

These spam scams are now totally out of control. And there will be more of them. That's because law enforcement agencies charged with going after these thieves are short-staffed because the war against terror has diverted funding and resources. The sheer volume of complaints also overwhelms them.

Besides, many of these crooks are based overseas in countries that don't particularly care how many Americans get ripped off.

Two agencies are charged with fighting this: the FBI's Internet Fraud Complaint Center (www1.ifccfbi.gov) and the ID theft division of the Federal Trade Commission (www.consumer.gov/idtheft).

By all means, report these fake e-mails to both agencies. But both units are so swamped that, realistically, don't expect much, if anything, to be done with your complaint.

An anti-spam nightmare

A West Bloomfield couple are taking the brunt of the frustration of anti-spammers who keep calling them, erroneously thinking their telephone number belongs to the controversial Michigan spammer Alan Ralsky.

The reason? Anti-spammers inadvertently got one of the digits wrong when they posted on Internet chat rooms what they thought was Ralsky's phone number.

Ralsky lives not too far from the couple, but they are strangers. Ralsky is "one of the most hated people on the Internet," says the man whose phone line rings at all hours of the day or night from people who mistakenly think they're harassing the bulk e-mailer.

For the record, Ralsky still has the number that anti-spammers mixed up. I reached him Thursday. But when I asked him if we could talk about the effect the new federal anti-spam law has on his operations, he refused to continue the conversation.

Library computers busy

I was part of a conference call the other day with Melinda Gates, wife of the Microsoft founder, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation just gave another $5.8 million to libraries around the country to improve Internet and computer access in disadvantaged communities.

According to the foundation, about 14 million Americans now rely on library technology for Internet access. Of that number, nearly 30 percent are African American and 20 percent are Hispanic.

At the main Detroit library on Woodward or the new Southfield library at the civic center, you'll frequently find lines of people waiting to file online job resumes, keep in touch with the grandkids, do genealogical research or surf the Net.

State librarian Christie Pearson-Brandeau tells me it's like that all across the state. "The Internet and public computers are now almost as essential as the books," she says.

Contact MIKE WENDLAND at 313-222-8861 or mwendland@freepress.com.




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