Call 2009 the “Year of the Scammer.”
Internet schemes alone cost consumers $560 million, more than double the 2008 figure, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Identity theft claimed some 11 million victims—the most since Javelin Strategy & Research began its annual Identity Fraud Survey Report. And nearly 1 million complaints were filed with the Better Business Bureau, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.
So, are scammers getting sleazier—or are victims becoming more aware and taking action?
It seems it’s a little of both.
“One trend that surprised me,” says Robert Vamosi, who prepared Javelin’s study, “is that there is now less apathy among victims. More are fighting back, filing police reports, and joining lawsuits as the result of identity theft.” His study estimates that half of identity theft victims took action in 2009, up from about a third in 2008.
The BBB cites a tough economy as a major reason for its increase in reported complaints. “Amidst the housing crisis, high unemployment rate and the chaos on Wall Street, the last year has not been easy on consumers,” says Stephen A. Cox, president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Grumbling About Banks
The biggest upsurge in Javelin’s study, which examined the top 10 industries that generate complaints, was in gripes about banks—a 42 percent spike from 2008. Banks were the third most complained-about industry, after cellphone companies and cable or satellite television providers, whose complaints increased 2 and 9 percent respectively.
New car dealers, which ranked fourth, had 2 percent fewer complaints in 2009, while Internet shopping complaints, which ranked fifth, had a 9 percent increase in filings.
The BBB didn’t track the specific types of complaints filed, instead tallying total numbers by industry.
Most of those industries, however, did a better job at resolving consumer complaints last year than in the past, although banks slipped slightly.
The IC3 report, which tracked Internet-based crimes, found a 22 percent increase in filed complaints from 2008. The most common was about bogus e-mails, purporting to be from the FBI or another government agency, that tried to get personal information from the recipient.
Other top complaints were non-delivery of merchandise ordered online and advance-fee scams, in which targets are asked to send money upfront for a reward or prize that never materializes.
Reporting Suspicious Activity
It’s important for consumers to report such dirty dealings. “Law enforcement relies on the corporate sector and citizens to report when they encounter online suspicious activity, so these schemes can be investigated and criminals can be arrested,” says Peter Trahon of the FBI’s Cyber Division.
If you think a scammer is targeting you, where should you complain?
Report suspicious e-mails, suspected online fraud, and other computer-based crimes to the IC3. Complaints about specific companies should be made to the BBB. And for any type of fraud, contact the Federal Trade Commission and your state attorney general.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).