Fraud Watch: Beware these cyber fraud tactics

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It's time for the final installment of this series exploring computer fraud. We examined three criminal approaches to haunting cyber neighborhoods: phishing, clones and social media trolling. Here are a few more "popular" attacks. (Note: The computer fraud landscape is in constant flux, and new scams develop daily. Your best defense is education, so sign up for available fraud alerts.)

Leading today's list is the online dating scam. Here, the criminal uses a chat forum, dating website or social media applying professional techniques and approaches common to marketing and persuasion. Fake, targeted profiles are applied to lure victims. Engaging in online romance is not bad, but check out your potential partner before providing any personal information or financial assistance. Use independent verification available through commercial services or by conducting extensive searches to verify that the person contacting you is actually the person researched.

Beware of pop-up alerts warning of computer virus infections. Companies such as Microsoft or Apple do not monitor your personal computer, and warnings allegedly from these companies are fraudulent. Do not click any links, as they might download malware to your computer, and do not call numbers posted in the alert. Never provide computer access based on these alerts. Notify the state consumer protection office of the scam attempt. Your own computer virus protection software will alert you to any problems. (You do have up-to-date malware protection installed?)

Avoid data aggregation schemes — attempts to gain access to your personal data through mock surveys and gift offers. Here, an offer is made to award a gift card or shopping benefit in return for responses to a few seemingly insignificant questions.

The data collector seeks your demographic data including age, race, ethnicity and marital status. Questions might also ask about health care, housing status, transportation, and go on to inquire about personal preferences such as music, literature, media, politics and vacations.

Most of these questions seem to be innocent and inconsequential, but they are not. At best, the data aggregator is building a profile for the purpose of marketing. At worst, the aggregator intends to sell or use your data for use in crafting a personalized scam. Your best defense is to steer clear of these offers and guard all personal information.

Often falling victim to computer fraud comes under the category of "If it's too good to be true " and plays on our efforts to land good deals with online shopping. It is no secret that premier computer software such as Microsoft Office or Photoshop is sold at premium prices. While many of us consider the prices to be inflated, software developers believe that pricing is fair for the product quality and the work expended in research and production.

Here is where the scammer enters the picture.

Frequently these products can be found on the internet for download at a fraction of the regular price. While they appear to be identical to the desired product, the software has been rewritten to include malware; the unwitting buyer installs a copy of the software that will steal information from your computer.

Recommendation? Be safe and bite the bullet by purchasing legitimate software. Often, loading these programs and running protection software might not reveal anything; the malware might be disguised as a "Trojan horse" programmed with delayed activation. FYI — this applies to all on-line shopping — beware of deeply discounted items sold on the internet.

The final suggestion in this series concerns hardware — computers, tablets, smartphones. The time comes for getting rid of almost all cyber hardware through sale, gift or outright disposal. The good news is that disposal is often free or very inexpensive. The bad news is that disposal is handled incorrectly by most.

Disposable technology often stores volumes of personal data, including account numbers, passwords, address books and more. Conduct a complete memory erase on your own before dumping, selling or giving hardware away. Don't rely on someone else for this, even if they work for a reputable business.

If you can't erase the memory, destroy the storage memory chip or hard drive.

Cyber fraud is a growing concern. Education is your safety net. Questions? Email egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a coordinator for the AARP Fraud Watch Network and writes this biweekly column. If you suspect that you might be a victim of a computer-based scam, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network hotline at 877-908-3360 or the Massachusetts Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at 617-727-8400.


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