'You have to be the firewall'

AARP Fraud Watch Network program brings home lessons on online crime

PITTSFIELD — "The No. 1 deterrent against scams and con artists is you."

That was the message Wednesday from Elliott Greenblott, coordinator of Vermont's AARP Fraud Watch Network, during a presentation at The Berkshire Museum.

"We can't stop them," he told attendees. "You have to be the firewall."

The presentation, "Scams, Fraud and Con Artists: Coming to a Computer near You," was sponsored by The Berkshire Eagle and The Berkshire Museum, in cooperation with AARP Fraud Watch Network.

Before a small crowd of mostly senior citizens, Greenblott outlined how criminals try to con people out of money online, ways to prevent this situation from happening, how to spot scams before they occur, and how to report this activity if you believe it's taking place.

As technology has become more sophisticated, consumer fraud has turned into a multi-million dollar problem.The number of fraudulent transactions from merchants rose 95 percent per month between 2012 and 2015, according to a survey by LexisNexis Risk Solutions. It's believed that around 12 percent of American adults — 32 million people — are conned out of money each year, according to debt.org.

Greenblott, whose biweekly column that is published in The Eagle, addressed many of the current trends in computer crime.

His remarks were divided into four sections: The whys and hows of consumer fraud, how to spot the clues to the activity, and the actions that can be taken to prevent it.

"Ten years ago we didn't have to worry about it," Greenblott said. "The internet was in its infancy."

He said computer fraud is attractive to criminals because computers have become consumer commodities, comparable to household appliances like washing machines. It's also easy and inexpensive to pursue, access to public information is widely available, and most computer operators are naive.

"They have no idea what that piece of equipment can do," Greenblott said. "That naivete is what makes you vulnerable."

Greed on the part of the predator and the victim is a key element in consumer fraud, he said, because the lure of being able to receive something for free can be enticing and irresistible. Scammers often use a process known as "profiling" to get just enough personal information about someone so they can target them online.

"If I can get you to give me little bits of information," Greenblott said, "I can put that together, as a con artist, over time."

Hackers often uses email, imposter websites, and pop-up windows or net links to lure victims in.

"Many of them are infected with viruses," he said.

One tactic, which Greenblott referred to as "the blue screen of death," involves messages sent to users that their operating system is broken. By clicking on links, users are asked to provide personal information to the operators of the system.

"This is a scam to get into your computer," he said.

He recommended that anyone faced with that situation simply shut off their computer, then restart it. "[The message] won't be there anymore," Greenblott said,

He also urged computer users to constantly back up their information in case they're targeted by scammers — "back it up twice," he recommended — and to use "robust, unique" passwords that should be changed periodically.

Clues to consumer fraud include websites that include poor spelling or grammar, and unrelated "reply to" links or URL addresses.

"Look for things that don't connect," he said.

Greenblott also encouraged people to conduct personal business on secure networks at home not in public Wi-Fi spots where there may be hundreds of users.

He also urged victims of consumer fraud to report incidents to law enforcement authorities, consumer assistance agencies, or agencies like the AARP Fraud Network.

"Fraud is an under reported crime," Greenblott said. "Most fraud and fraudulent attempts are not reported. It's too embarrassing to tell someone that you got took."

Reach Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224.


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