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Finally, a sign of increased economic activity. The organization that tracks Internet fraud says reports of scams were way up last year, and the problem appears to be getting worse this year. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: If you've ever sold an item on Craigslist this message might sound familiar.
I will be purchasing the motorbike. I have a client in England who is owing me 5,800 pounds. I would instruct him to make out a money order, certified check to you in that amount. And as soon as it clears your bank you can now deduct your money from it and send me my balance.
The message goes on for a few more paragraphs. It's from a warning page on Craigslist with the heading Actual Scam emails Sent to Craigslist Sellers.
This case might've been one of 275,000 that people reported to the Internet Crimes Complaint Center last year. Each year, the center puts out a report assessing the state of Internet crime. The new report says complaints were up by a third from 2007. The center referred about 72,000 complaints to law enforcement. The scams totaled more than $260 million.
Center manager John Kane spoke on a conference call with reporters.
Mr. JOHN KANE (Manager, Internet Crimes Complaint Center): It's our belief that these numbers, both the complaints filed and the dollars, represent just a small tip of the iceberg.
SHAPIRO: He said only about 15 percent of Internet fraud cases ever get reported. The median victim lost almost $1,000 in a scam. And Kane said the problem is getting worse.
Mr. KANE: In fact, looking at March of '08 compared to March of this year, we've seen almost a 50 percent increase in the number of complaints filed with us.
SHAPIRO: Kane says it's been true throughout history. The economy goes down and crime goes up.
Mr. KANE: I think you're seeing almost a perfect storm between the economy downturn and the adoption emergence of new technologies that is really facilitating, unfortunately, the growth in various types of Internet criminality.
SHAPIRO: And the types of Internet criminality are changing. For the last eight years auction fraud was the most common type of scam. This year, for the first time, auction fraud was runner-up. In first place, transactions where people didn't deliver merchandise or payment. In laymen's terms, Craigslist beat eBay.
Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said, in an email, that Craigslist prominently warns people to deal locally with folks you can meet in person. Buyers and sellers who ignore those warnings can be taken advantage of.
The Internet Crimes Complaint Center does not keep statistics of how many successful prosecutions come out of its referrals. University of Washington law Professor Anita Ramasastry says these cases are harder to prosecute than most other crimes.
Professor ANITA RAMASASTRY (Law, University of Washington): Much harder.
SHAPIRO: Victims can be anywhere. So can perpetrators.
Prof. RAMASASTRY: Some are right here in the U.S. And so we actually have had prosecutions of spammers within the United States that have sent out fraudulent or deceptive marketing. But if they're located in Russia or they're located somewhere else, you know…
SHAPIRO: Nigeria, say.
Prof. RAMASASTRY: Well, you know, Nigeria's not in the top ten, as far as I can - I recall. So…
SHAPIRO: I feel like they're in the top ten in my inbox.
Prof. RAMASASTRY: Right. But just because it says they're from there doesn't mean that the email's actually originating from there.
SHAPIRO: Well, that points to another challenge of prosecuting these things.
Prof. RAMASASTRY: Well, that's right. Well, prosecutors actually have to work with forensic investigators to just figure out again if the headers and so forth were spoofed, you know, where is this actually coming from. And in today's environment it's just a matter of dollars.
SHAPIRO: The government might get more bang for its buck educating potential victims instead of playing whack-a-mole with scammers. The FBI has released a series of public service announcements alerting people to online scams. Recently, people received e-mails saying fraud victims can get reimbursements from the Internet Crimes Complaint Center. The FBI says it was a scam.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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