Monday, August 9, 2004

Computer 'phishing' fraud worms way into Kentucky

The Associated Press

OWENSBORO - Vande Slonecker thought something looked odd.

Slonecker received an e-mail from her bank at 11:42 p.m. asking for account information to keep her bank account from being suspended.

"I also know that no bank would ask for your account number by e-mail," said Slonecker, student assistance coordinator for Daviess County Public Schools.

Thousands of similar e-mails are sent out around the world each day. Slonecker was able to find five fellow county employees who had received the same or similar e-mails within the past few weeks.

This relatively new method of identity theft and fraud has been dubbed "phishing" because the scam artists use e-mail "lures" to "fish" for passwords and personal and financial information from Internet users, according to the Council of Better Business Bureau Inc.

The main source of the e-mails is con artists who are overseas who can reach millions via e-mail, said Sheila Adkins associate director of public affairs for the council.

"It's a very big problem today because of computers and the new technology," Adkins said.

Impersonating a bank

Phishers will typically impersonate a company or financial institution that a person patronizes, stating that the person's account with the company is in danger of being closed or frozen if the account information is not verified. The e-mails typically bear the company's logo and a link that appears to be with the company where the person can renew their account and personal information.

The phisher can then use that information to not only clean out the person's bank account, but can also effectively steal that person's identity, using it to open new bank and credit card accounts in the person's name, Adkins said.

The consumer protection unit of the state attorney general's office receives about four inquiries a week from people who have received these types of e-mails, said Vicki Glass, spokeswoman for the attorney general.

"It seems this scam has gotten more popular here," Glass said.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, Kentucky had one of the lowest rates of identity theft in the country last year. Arizona, which topped the list last year, had more than 120 victims per 100,000 in population, compared to only 32 per 100,000 in Kentucky.

The commission received nearly 167,000 complaints of Internet-related fraud complaints last year, with victims losing nearly $200 million.

Phishers are very difficult to catch, Glass said, in part because of the electronic medium.

"Oftentimes, it's very difficult to determine where the e-mail is coming from," Glass said.

Owensboro Police Department spokesman Officer Doug Esther said Slonecker's case was the first of its kind the department has encountered, though it has received reports of other Internet-based frauds and different forms of identity theft.

"This kind of fraud has just been brought to our attention and we are trying to get the word out so people don't fall victim to it," Esther said.

Before giving out any information, Slonecker contacted the bank by phone. She is forwarding a copy of the e-mail to the bank's fraud investigation department.

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