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April 2004

Don’t Become a Victim of Phishing

   A type of cyber-scam known as “phishing” is on a dramatic upswing in Wisconsin, and I’ve heard from a number of consumers who thought I should warn readers about it. The scam starts with consumers receiving what on the surface appear to be e-mails from trusted organizations—their banks, familiar on-line companies, even government agencies.

   One consumer, for example, received an e-mail informing him, “Your card was used by another person or stolen. It could happen if you have been shopping on-line, and someone got your billing information including your card number.” He was then told, “To avoid and prevent any billing mistakes and to refund your credit card, it is strongly recommended to proceed filling in the secure form on our site.” The consumer was referred to a website that looked authentic. However, he became suspicious and decided to complain about the e-mail to state Consumer Protection officials. They were able to verify that the site was a phony, designed to extract information such as Social Security numbers and then route the information to identity thieves.

   Bank One recently alerted its customers that criminals are sending out e-mails asking for personal identifying information to maintain Bank One accounts. Consumers are asked to supply the information on a web site Bank One said looked very much like the bank’s legitimate website.

   AOL customers have also been “phished.” Last November, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the successful criminal prosecution of a Virginia woman who sent fake e-mails to AOL customers announcing that they must update their credit card information to maintain their AOL accounts.

   Other consumers received e-mails purporting to come from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) that ask for verification of personal financial information—including bank account numbers—at a phony web site created to look like the real FDIC home page.

   Wisconsin Consumer Protection spokesperson Glen Loyd told me his agency has received many complaints about fake websites, and several investigations are underway.

   How do you protect yourself from phishing? First, ask your Internet service provider how you can screen unwanted e-mails that are commonly referred to as “spam.” Second, avoid e-mailing personal and financial information. If you get an unexpected e-mail from a company or government agency asking for your personal information, contact the company or agency cited in the email using a telephone number you know to be genuine or start a new Internet session and type in the web address that you know is correct. Third, report the e-mail to the Federal Bureau of Investigation at www.ic3.gov or contact Wisconsin Consumer Protection at 1-800-422-7128.

   If you fall victim, notify your bank and credit card company immediately. Discuss with them whether your account should be closed and whether a fraud watch should be placed on your credit report. Be careful out in cyberspace!

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