Just when you thought it was safe to surf on the Internet, a scam has emerged that could put a big dent in students' wallets.
E-mail scams known as "phishing" have taken $929 million from 1.2 million Internet users in a one-year period, according to a study by the Gartner Group. The study also stated that 57 million American adult Internet users think they received a phishing email.
The Colorado Attorney General's Web site lists phishing as the illegal practice whereby identity thieves, who simulate a legitimate organization, use e-mails to persuade people to share their personal and private financial data.
Brenda Ropoulos, senior marketing director at Cloudmark, an Internet security company, said phishing scams target all Internet users including college students.
"College students may not be aware of the full implications of e-mail scams," Ropoulos said. "They may not have the personal financial experience to realize when a letter or pitch is a scam, especially if they are not totally independent about handling their finances."
Alec Patarino, a freshman open-option major, is not worried about email scams because of the amount of spyware and Internet security software on his computer.
"I have three types of spyware on my computer and I use Norton AntiVirus software," Patarino said.
While most antivirus software will protect a consumer, phishing scams can circumvent such actions. While software such as Cloudmark's anti-fraud toolbar help warn customers about potentially dangerous Web sites, new scams can pop up everyday making 100 percent security software impossible.
The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) stated on its Web site, www.apwg.com, that there were nearly 17,000 phishing scams and 4,630 new phishing Web sites active in November 2005 alone. The amount of new phishing Web sites has tripled alone in the last year. The Federal Trade Commission reports there were over 4,500 Internet fraud cases in Colorado in 2005.
Originally the most targeted companies were large national banks, but now scammers have hit almost every bank in the United States. Ninety percent of all phishing scams are committed by people pretending to be banks. Ebay and PayPal also have been copied by scammers.
With the increase in phishing scams on the Internet, politicians are looking into bills and new laws that harshly punish the people who commit these crimes. Currently there are no laws that specifically mention phishing but Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), would like that to change. Leahy has introduced the Anti-Phishing Act to combat phishing scams.
This act, which is currently in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would be the first of its kind and could lead to strict punishments for perpetrators of phishing scams. The punishment for breaking this new law would be up to five years in prison.
Even with the implementation of new laws and the introduction of new software products to combat the phishing, the only way for consumers to completely protect themselves is by using their own good judgment. Lisa Bennett, director of marketing at Cyota, an Internet security company, recommends a few tips in looking out for scams.
"People should not click on links in emails from financial institutions, instead they should proactively go to the site and conduct any business they would like," Bennett said. "It is also a good idea not to provide any personal information unless someone is sure who they are interacting with."
If you believe you have fallen for a phishing scam, the best thing to do is report it to your credit card company, the company that was forged, and to the APWG's Web site.
Mike Donovan can be reached at email@example.com.