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How the net changed the ancient art of the con

The art of deception

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Comment It's called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine, House of Games

As well as creating new forms of criminal activity, such as spamming, the rising importance of computer networks has witnessed many forms of traditional crime reappearing under slightly different guises.

Blackmail and protection rackets have been reapplied in denial of service attacks targeted against, for example, online bookmakers. Similarly, the traditional crime of stalking becomes cyberstalking when applied through computer and telecoms networks.

But it's perhaps the practice of the confidence trick that has undergone the most change through the application of computer systems. Attempts to mislead prospective marks or victims with the goal of financial profit have been changed because of the reach of computer networks and because face to face interaction is no longer needed to (at least) initiate scams.

You can't con an honest man

Many cyber-scams rely on the greed and dishonesty of their prospective victims. But, arguably, the most prevalent form of cyber-fraud trades on a different human emotion - fear. Phishing fraudsters send messages that pose as a security warning from a legitimate organisation to trick users into visiting bogus websites and handing over sensitive account credentials.

Once they have this information, fraudsters still have the problem of moving money abroad, hence their attempts to recruit so-called phishing mules to act as intermediaries. These middlemen are persuaded to open up bank accounts into which the stolen money is placed. Cash is then transferred minus a "commission", typically seven per cent, to fraudsters - an activity that is itself a criminal offence.

Return to sender

Other scams rely on exploiting a lack of knowledge about banking systems. One common scam involves paying for an item bought online or through an action with a cheque valued at a higher amount than the sum owed. The victim is urged to forward the excess value to the scammer and does so after the cheque is credited to his account, only to find out days later that he's been conned when the cheque bounces.

Scam-baiters

In other forms of fraud, such as 419 advanced fee fraud, confidence tricksters work with teams of accomplices (or shills) to attempt to trick users that they stand to earn a share of plundered booty. Problems inevitably intervene in extracting this loot (necessitating the mark into shelling out money up front to pay bribes, fee etc.) that escalate as the fraud progresses. A low-rent variation of the theme is the lottery fraud where the prospective victim is informed they have "won" a large prize but must pay an administrative fee before they get their hands on the non-existent loot.

Internet technologies such as email mean the need to target specific marks is no longer of much importance in either phishing or advance-fee fraud attacks. Fraudsters can thrive on response rates as low as one in a million. That also means average punters are exposed on a routine basis to fraudulent overtures.

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