The 18,733 residents of Fairmont, W.Va., probably don’t even give the gleaming, modern office building on the edge of their town a second glance. But crooks on the other side of the world know all about it. It’s called the IC3, which stands for Internet Crime Complaint Center, and the FBI analysts who work there track cybercriminals — no matter where they are.
“We see a lot of connections internationally,” said Donna Gregory, unit chief of the IC3. “The fraud has really advanced. The subjects are very savvy. They know how to cover their tracks as far as anonymity … They’re very clever in using multiple hops with the money.”
Consumers can file a complaint with the IC3 if they’ve been victims of an Internet crime. So every day, a tsunami of schemes, scams and swindles pours into the IC3. FBI analysts lay eyes on every single tip they receive, looking for trends, trying to identify perpetrators. Massive servers spin and flicker 24/7 in a back room, storing copies of every come-on claiming to be from a stranded grandchild or Nigerian official, so the IC3 can see how the cons move and mutate over time. The ultimate goal is to put the puzzle pieces together and hand the documentation over for prosecution.
Sometimes there just isn’t enough evidence to go after the bad guys, so the IC3’s other mission is public education — teaching you to protect yourself. “Any electronic devices that touch your life are definitely a place where people have to be on the lookout,” Gregory said. “From your personal information, to your banking information, your social media connections, your Internet of things, your baby monitors, even your smart cars.”
Here are a half-dozen of the latest scams from the IC3’s files so you’ll know what to watch out for.
• Ransomware: This malicious software freezes all the files on your computer, so you can’t access them. Next, you receive an ominous message on your computer desktop demanding money for the return of your files. The most common way to come in contact with ransomware is by clicking on a malicious link in an email. It can also happen if you visit a website that has been taken over by hackers.
Tips: Don’t click on links in emails from strangers. Keep your operating system and antivirus software up to date.
• Student employment scam: Scammers advertise entry-level jobs online aimed at college students. The thieves then send their unsuspecting new “employees” fraudulent cashier’s checks and tell them to deposit them in their checking accounts and forward a portion to a third party, supposedly for job-related equipment. The college student forwards real money, but the cashier’s check turns out to be fake. Tip: If somebody overpays you and asks you to wire the extra money somewhere, it is a scam. Period.
• Data breach extortion: Here the crooks really pile on. First your personal information is compromised by a data breach. Then criminals blackmail you, threatening to reveal that private information via your social media pages if you don’t pay up. Here’s an actual line con men have used: “If you would like to prevent me from sharing this dirt with all of your friends, family members and spouse, then send exactly 5 bitcoins to the following address.” Solutions: Do not store embarrassing information online or on mobile devices. Use strong and varied passwords for every account.
• Facebook social engineering: Through data breaches or other means, criminals are getting people’s social media passwords. They then impersonate those people and ask their friends for money. A classic is urgently asking to borrow money for car repairs so the “friend” can get home. The bad guys know just enough about you from your Facebook feed to make their request convincing. Tips: Call — don’t text or email, as those can be hacked, too — to see whether your friend really is in trouble. Tighten your social media privacy settings.
• Internet of Things: Just as the Internet has made our lives more convenient, it also has made crooks’ lives more convenient. The “Internet of Things” is the term for devices connected to the Internet, such as baby monitors, security systems and smart appliances. The IC3 says some criminals have already used Internet-connected security systems and cameras to track homeowners’ movements. Others have even tapped into home televisions and appliances and used them to send spam. Tip: Experts’ No. 1 advice is to change the default passwords on these devices to complex passwords.
• Vehicle takeover: The FBI is warning that computerized cars could be the next frontier for cyber scammers. Fortunately, agents haven’t come across criminals hacking into car computers yet, but researchers were able to do so with ease. They shut off a car’s engine, disabled its brakes, messed with the steering — and more. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was so alarmed that it ordered a recall of the vehicles in question, but this area is so new that you can expect to see additional wrinkles as onboard computers become more sophisticated. Tip: Register your vehicle with the manufacturer so you receive recall notices.