Elliott Greenblott: Fraud Watch | Beware online con artists, data brokers

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You receive an email presenting a great deal: "Congratulations! You've been chosen to receive an exclusive offer!"

On opening the email, you find the offer is for a $100 Amazon gift card and all you need to do is answer a few questions. You click on the link and away you go!

After a half hour of responding to some generally non-intrusive questions, you tire and decide to stop. So far, there's no mention of the $100 gift card, only repeated sales pitches for a wide range of products and magazine subscriptions.

While you may feel it's been a wasted 30 minutes, the senders achieved their goal: data collection.

First, you fell for one of the basic con-artist tactics, "phantom riches." You saw money dangling in front of you, the brass ring, and you reached for it by opening the email and clicking on the link.

At this point, you have given away more information than you may think. The sender started with your email address and quite likely your name. That click told the sender the name of your internet provider, the type of computer you are using, the operating system of the computer, the internet browser that is used and the community in which you are using the computer. Not bad for a single click. (And by the way, you give up that information every time you visit a website.)

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The non-stop, non-intrusive questions and offers have provided a wealth of information about your interests, needs, activities and behaviors that can be used to target products, services and scams.

So how can you avoid the attack of the con artists and data brokers? Simple. Don't click the link in the email.

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I constantly receive these "offers" and am approached by readers who ask about them. One way I answer is to ask questions. How many times have you walked down the street and been approached by someone giving away $100 bills? Why would someone you don't know or have never met make such an offer? Again, don't click.

As a side note, by clicking the link, you are signaling that you are receptive to the offers and will likely see more of them.

An effective way to avoid the data giveaway is to install and use a VPN or virtual private network. A VPN is an effective mask of your online identity that uses an encrypted transfer of data and identity and thus does not compromise your information.

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Another online scam is an example of the use of the data collected above. The criminal uses the data that includes email address, internet service provider and other collected information to send a fraudulent alert concerning internet or cable TV service. The email is well constructed with appropriate logos providing a link to a website that looks quite official and only asks for account confirmation with login ID and password. Once the data is entered and the new link is clicked, the website returns a message stating that problems have been resolved and then takes the victim to the real service provider's website.

Here, the criminal wants to access your account and change notification and service data. Typically, the account contact information such as phone number and email address are changed and the account services end up with somebody else. The victim remains unaware of what has happened until he or she receives a bill for premium services that he or she did not order.

Don't be fooled. First look at the sender address of the email which will not be from an individual but reflect a company department or service. If is includes a person's name, trash it.

If you click the email link, check the address of the message (the URL). If it is not the company address (e.g., xfinity.com), close your browser and report the site to the FBI, ic3.gov or the Federal Trade Commission (ftc.gov).

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. He can be reached at egreenblott@aarp.org.


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