Feds, industry warn of spike in ID theft scams

A new report shows a dramatic increase in incidents of identity theft

The U.S. federal government and EarthLink Inc. warned today of a surge in unsolicited e-mail and scam Web sites that are designed to steal the identity of unsuspecting Internet users.

The Atlanta-based Internet service provider has seen a spike since the beginning of the year in e-mail linked to so-called "phisher" Web site scams, which use spam to lure victims to Web sites that look like legitimate retail or corporate sites, according to company spokeswoman Carla Shaw.

Victims are often told that they need to update personal account information with a company. Once at the scam site, victims are asked to "re-enter" sensitive information such as their Social Security numbers, account passwords or even credit card numbers into a form provided on the site. That information is captured by the scam Web site's operators and used to perpetrate identity theft, EarthLink said.

In a joint statement, the FBI said that it has received a "steady increase" in complaints to its Internet Fraud Complaint Center about the phony Web sites. Retailers, online auction sites and Internet service providers are frequent targets of the scam artists.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said it's working closely with EarthLink and other law enforcement authorities to warn consumers about the scams. Identity theft has been the No. 1 consumer complaint reported to the agency for the past three years, the FTC said.

EarthLink asked the federal agencies to join it in issuing a warning to publicize the problem, Shaw said. "We want to make consumers aware of the problem and empower them with the knowledge that these types of scams are increasing and that they can protect themselves by not responding to suspicious e-mails," she said.

The warnings come as a new report from Gartner Inc. shows a dramatic increase in incidents of identity theft in the past 12 months. "Underreporting of Identity Theft Rewards the Thieves" surveyed 2,445 U.S. households in May and found that reported incidents of identity theft increased 79% in the past year, from 1.9% of all respondents to 3.4%, the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm said.

Broadened to include all U.S. consumers, the survey's results mean that 7 million U.S. adults were victims of identity theft in the past 12 months, Gartner said.

However, contrary to the image presented by EarthLink of anonymous thieves hiding behind sham Web sites, more than half of all identity theft is committed by criminals who have established relationships with their victims, such as family members, roommates and co-workers, Gartner said. The research firm said a lackadaisical response to the problem by the financial services industry is at least partly to blame for the problem.

Banks, credit card issuers and other companies that extend credit to their customers often fail to make a connection between delinquent accounts and identity theft, attributing the problem to "credit losses" due to irresponsible borrowers, Gartner said. The result is that criminals face only a 1 in 700 chance of getting caught by federal authorities.

Gartner called on legislators and industry associations to push financial services companies to address the problem. Companies should do a better job of screening credit applicants for fraud and make it easier to report identity theft to financial institutions, Gartner said.

Almost unheard of two years ago, phisher sites are now a common new type of spam. Recent news reports have highlighted scams targeting PayPal Inc. and chain store retailer Best Buy Co.

Legitimate companies and online retailers would never use an e-mail message to solicit personal account information, according to EarthLink's Shaw.

Internet users who receive a suspicious e-mail asking for personal information should forward the message to the company in question asking for clarification, the FBI said.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon