The volume of Internet crime has continued to rise steadily since 2007, with victims reporting $559 million in losses in 2009, a 110 percent increase compared to losses in 2008. Investigators and officials say part of the reason may be the economic downturn and a rise in investment and employment-opportunity scams.
Officials of the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, released their annual report on Iinternet crime Friday. It showed that 336,655 complaints were filed in 2009 -- a 22 percent increase over the number of complaints in 2008.
Total losses in 2008 were $264.6 million.
"There's been a higher percent of large-dollar cases." said John Kane, the research manager at the National White Collar Crime Center.
Noting the economic downturn, the report highlighted cases of unsolicited phone calls directing people to fraudulent Web sites to register for stimulus funds.
"The recorded voice message reportedly sounds very much like President Barrack Obama discussing alleged government funds available for those who apply," it said.
"Victims are warned that the offer is only available for a limited time and are instructed to visit the Web sites www.nevergiveitback.com or www.myfedmoney.com to receive their money. These sites require victims to enter personal identifying information after which they are directed to a second page to receive notification of eligibility."
Other scams that have increased include work-at-home scams where "victims fall prey to fraudulent postings for a variety of positions, ranging from personnel managers to secret shoppers. Victims are lured into providing the fraudster with personal identifying information with promises of above average hourly wages or several hundred dollars per week. Some victims are promised the hardware and/or software equipment needed to perform the job."
The scams are so intricate that victims are sometimes sent personal checks and money orders and are later asked to distribute a personal check from their bank account to a third party so the scammers can obtain banking information.
Of the 336,655 complaints filed in 2009, over 146,000 cases were referred to local, state, and federal law enforcement for potential investigations.
"Non-delivered merchandise and/or payment represents the offense that was most referred to law enforcement, followed by identity theft and credit card fraud," said the report. The report does not include information on how many cases have been referred to prosecutions or are resolved.
Peter Trahon, section chief of the FBI's Cyber Division, said in a statement, "Law enforcement relies on the corporate sector and citizens to report when they encounter on-line suspicious activity so these schemes can be investigated and criminals can be arrested."
The report notes that the highest percentage of complaints, over 16 percent of the cases, sent to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center involve scams reported to be sent from the FBI asking for personal information. Officials have seen an increase in the past several years in the number of phishing or spoof e-mails that look as if they are coming from a U.S. government e-mail address with a .gov address in the email. Internet users have even received hoax e-mails claiming to come from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
On a conference call with reporters FBI Supervisory Special Agent said Charles Pavelites said, "The [FBI] Director does not have an Italian Yahoo account from which he contacts you about inheritance." The FBI-related scams are believed to come mostly from overseas perpetrators and most internet users realize the emails are scams.
"We do not see a lot of people losing money," Pavelites said.
The FBI urges Internet users to delete suspicious e-mails and spam and to contact the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.IC3.gov.
Kane said that cyber-thieves are now using social networking sites and cell phones to bilk unsuspecting individuals out of their money, "Criminals are taking advantage of different modalities…through cell phone…social networking sites…manipulating search results…they are not simply sending out an e-mail anymore because the public has caught onto that."
A new and recent trend, the officials said, are scammers developing their own fraudulent applications -- "apps" for short -- for mobile smart phones to look like online banking tools.
"It is a recognized trend." Kane said. "We are going to see an uptick in the way fraudsters are trying to take advantage of this."
In a statement, Donald Brackman. Director of the National White Collar Crime Center, said, "Criminals are continuing to take full advantage of the anonymity afforded them by the Internet. They are also developing increasingly sophisticated means of defrauding unsuspecting consumers. Internet crime is evolving in ways we couldn't have imagined just five years ago."