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Glossary of Scam Terminology

Here’s your guide to the common lingo of cutting-edge fraud

Back in simpler times, "skimming" involved a flat rock and a lake, "cramming" was what college students did before final exams or in telephone booths (remember them?), and "phishing" was a misspelled way to catch dinner.

But scammer rip-offs rewrote those meanings. Here's a guide to the dialect of common types of computer-assisted deception (click on links for more details):

pharming phishing figuring fishing ampersand scam fraud alert

What's the difference between pharming and phishing? — Getty Images

Botnet. A network of computers — maybe one of the machines is yours — that scammers have infected with hidden software to secretly send spam.

Cramming. The illegal placement of unauthorized charges on your telephone bill for unrequested services or calls not made.

Hacker. Someone who uses the Internet to illegally break into computers.

Keystroke logger. A usually covert program that tracks (or logs) sequential strokes on your keyboard to allow remote hackers to capture your passwords and online banking and credit card information.

Malware. Short for "malicious software," this term means computer viruses and other types of programs that cybercriminals use to disrupt or access your computer, typically with the aim of gathering sensitive files and accounts.

Pharming. When hackers use malicious programs to route you to their own sites — even though you've correctly typed in the address of a site you want to visit. The software stealthily diverts you to a look-alike destination, typically with the goal of gathering personal information for identity theft.

Phishing. The use of authentic-looking emails, often purporting to be from a bank or government agency, to trick you into responding with sensitive personal data.

Ransomware. A malicious computer program that restricts or disables your computer and then demands, typically via a pop-up window, that you pay a fee to fix the problem.

Scareware. A type of malware that displays on-screen warnings of nonexistent computer infections or generates constant pop-ups intended to trick you into buying useless or potentially dangerous "protection" software.

Skimming. The capturing of information from the magnetic stripe on your ATM and credit card by use of portable "skimmer" devices that are secretly installed on card-reading machines.

Smishing. Named for the SMS (short message service) technology used to send text messages, it means phishing attempts made on cellphones.

Spoofing. Any situation in which scammers masquerade as a specific person, business or agency. The term is typically used to describe the manipulation of telephone Caller ID to display a false name or number for the caller.

Spyware. A type of malware installed on computers or cellphones to track your actions and/or collect information without your knowledge. Some spyware can change computer settings for pharming redirection.

Trojan horse. Software that's hidden within apparently harmless data — or masquerades as a regular program — and when activated, can deliver such blows as corrupting data on your hard drive or sending files and account information to hackers. Unlike viruses and worms, Trojans do not self-replicate and spread to other computers.

Vishing. Short for "voice phishing," it's the use of recorded messages to telephones — usually claiming to be from a bank — with the goal of tricking you into revealing personal or account information for identity theft.

Virus. A computer program that can replicate itself and spread from computer to computer or file to file. It comes to life only when you take a specific action, such as running a particular program.

Worm. Like a virus, it can replicate itself and spread — but without any action by you.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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