The organization that tracks internet fraud says reports of scams were way up in 2008. And the problem appears to be getting worse this year.
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 5800 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 have 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 the 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.
"It's our belief that these numbers, both the complaints filed and the dollars, represent just a small tip of the iceberg," center manager John Kane told reporters.
He said only about 15 percent of Internet fraud cases ever get reported. The median victim lost almost $1,000 in a scam.
And the problem is getting worse, Kane said.
"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," he said.
Cane says it's been true throughout history — when the economy goes down, crime goes up.
"I think you're seeing almost a perfect storm between the economic downturn and the adoption and emergence of new technologies that has facilitated unfortunately the growth in various types of Internet criminality," he says.
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 e-mail 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 on 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.
Victims can be anywhere. So can perpetrators. Just because spam is supposedly from Nigeria "doesn't mean the e-mails actually originating from there," Ramasastry says.
"Prosecutors have to work with forensic investigators to figure out if the [e-mail] headers and so forth were spoofed — where is this actually coming from. And in today's environment it's just a matter of dollars," she says.
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 emails saying fraud victims can get reimbursements from the Internet Crimes Complaint Center. The FBI says it was a scam.