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by Sid Kirchheimer, AARP Bulletin, January 25, 2010
Taking online quizzes and playing virtual games may seem like harmless fun, but they can cost you more than just your time.
In a fast-growing ruse, some unscrupulous vendors request a cellphone number to send you a text message containing your quiz or game results. That can lead to charges for new services or an onslaught of bothersome and costly “robocalls.”
“It’s not the quiz or game itself that’s the problem. Rather, they are the vehicles by which third-party advertisers get you to provide them with your cellphone number,” explains Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI agent who now is an online security consultant. “Once they have your cellphone, they begin charging.”
Ringing Up Charges
For what? Typically, a monthly subscription—costing $10 or more—for text-messaging those results or to send daily horoscopes, special ring tones, or other unexpected services.
“Because cellphone bills are so complicated to begin with, an extra $10 or so a month may go undetected,” Lanza tells Bulletin Today. “But it can continue for a year or more, and before you know it, that free game or quiz costs you hundreds of dollars.”
In some cases, there may be no subscription charges—just the charges for airtime minutes used by a barrage of illegal robocalls made to your cellphone.
This scam started months ago with online IQ tests promoted in pop-up computer ads, or sent by social networking “friends” to challenge you to beat their score. Such messages can also be sent by hackers pretending to be your friends.
More recently, this ruse has tricked some players of popular online games such as Farmville, Mafia Wars, and Restaurant City—often with ads that promise you currency or other tools needed for the game in return for filling out a survey. Again, you are asked to provide your cellphone number to receive your texted “reward.”
Facebook and some other websites where these ads appear have recently vowed to remove them. But with dozens of other online games, played by millions of people each month, there are plenty of other opportunities for telecom tricksters to practice their art.
How to Protect Yourself
If you enjoy online games, quizzes and tests, here are some defensive techniques to keep the game fun:
* Don’t provide your cellphone number or any other personal information in order to play. Free online games and quizzes that are legitimate won’t ask.
* Scroll to the bottom of the page before you start playing. The “terms and conditions” language that gives these third-party vendors permission to legally bill your cellphone account is often hidden in the small print. And if that print is so small you can’t even read it, assume that’s an attempt to hide billing information.
* If you receive links to play online games or quizzes from “friends” on social networking Web sites or via e-mail, authenticate them before playing. The links may download malware to access your online banking information and account passwords.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).
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