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Fraud Speak — Learn the Lingo to Beat Scammers

Scam speak terminology

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To spot online fraud, it helps to learn the language of scammers and hackers.

Time was when whaling was done by Captain Ahab and ghosting by Casper. Today the words describe dirty deeds done by scammers. These two terms are part of a dialect of deception that constantly evolves with new schemes or twists on existing ones. Knowledge is power. So to help you boost your fraud prevention know-how, here's a guide to the latest terms in the lexicon of larceny — and the common cons behind them.

Brute-force attack: A hacking method to find passwords or encryption keys by trying every possible combination of characters until the correct one is found.

Catfish: Someone who creates a fake online profile to intentionally deceive you.

Drive-by download: The downloading of a virus or malware onto your computer or mobile device when you visit a compromised website — it happens without your clicking on anything at the site.

Ghosting: Theft of the identity of a deceased person to fraudulently open credit accounts, obtain loans or get utility or medical services in the person's name.


Hash busters: The random words or sentences contained in spam emails that allow these emails to bypass your spam filters.

Keylogger: A clandestine program that logs sequential strokes on your keyboard and sends them to hackers so they can figure out your log-in credentials.

Malvertising: Malicious online advertising that contains malware — software intended to damage or disable computers.

Man-in-the-middle attack: When a fraudster secretly intercepts and possibly alters messages between two parties who believe they are securely communicating with each other.

Pharming: When hackers use malicious programs to route you to their own websites (often convincing look-alikes of well-known sites), even if you've correctly typed in the address of the site you want to visit.

Phishing: The act of trying to trick you, often by email, into providing sensitive personal data or credit card accounts, by a scammer posing as a trusted business or other entity.

Ransomware: A malicious program that restricts or disables your computer, hijacks and encrypts files, and then demands a fee to restore your computer's functionality.

Scareware: A program that displays on-screen warnings of nonexistent infections on your computer to trick you into installing malware or buying fake antivirus protection.

Skimming: The capture of information from the magnetic stripe on credit and debit cards by "skimmer" devices that are secretly installed on card-reading systems at gas pumps, ATMs and store checkout counters.

Smishing: Phishing attempts that go to your mobile devices via text message, telling you to call a toll-free number. Named for SMS (short message service) technology.

Spear-phishing: Phishing with personalized email, often appearing to be from someone you know.

Spoofing: Any situation in which a scammer masquerades as a specific person, business or agency, but typically meaning the manipulation of your telephone's caller ID to display a false name or number.

Spyware: A type of malware installed on your computer or cellphone to track your actions and collect information without your knowledge.

Vishing: Short for "voice phishing," the use of recorded phone messages intended to trick you into revealing sensitive information for identity theft.

Whaling: Phishing attempt on a "big fish" target (typically corporate executives or payroll departments) by a scammer who poses as its CEO, a company attorney or a vendor to get payments or sensitive information.

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

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