Computer Crime Research Center


Cracking down on online fraud

Date: December 10, 2004
Source: The Sudbury Town Crier
By: Michael Kunzelman

Something seemed awfully "phishy" about an e-mail state Rep. David Linsky discovered in his inbox two months ago.

The e-mail, purportedly from Citizens Bank, asked the Natick Democrat to follow a link to a Web site where he was directed to update his account information. The home page's logo and color scheme looked remarkably similar to the Citizens Bank Web site where Linsky does his online banking.

"It was similar, but not exactly the same," he recalled.

Then Linsky remembered reading a newspaper article about a growing form of identity theft commonly known as "phishing," a scheme in which cyber-criminals use bogus Web sites to trick consumers into disclosing financial and personal information.

"I decided that caution would be the better of valor and I didn't follow the link or enter any more information," Linsky said.

Surprised to learn that this particular form of online fraud technically isn't a crime in Massachusetts, Linsky has teamed up with state Sen. Susan Fargo, D-Lincoln, to file legislation that calls for outlawing phishing (hackers commonly substitute the letters "ph" for "f" at the beginning of words).

The bill, which they filed last week, would make it illegal to solicit personal information from another person "by false pretense" or by making a "materially false, fictitious or deceptive statement or communication," such as posing as a bank or government agency. Phishing would be a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for each offense.

The measure also closes a loophole in the state's existing anti-identity theft law by making it a crime to steal a dead person's identity, according to Fargo's chief of staff, Don Siriani.

"Even if someone is deceased, they still might have assets at risk," said Siriani.

A new federal law imposing harsh penalties for identity theft has been on the books since July 15, but it doesn't specifically outlaw phishing.

"It's not a crime right now, until you go and use that (personal) information to commit a larceny or some other type of crime," said Linsky, a lawyer. "What we're trying to do is penalize that attempt to solicit the information."

Internet fraud artists are "at least one if not two or three steps ahead of the statutes," Linsky added. "It's difficult to prosecute these crimes if we don't keep the statutes up to date."

Attorney General Thomas Reilly's office recently issued an anti-phishing alert, warning consumers to be on the lookout for fraudulent e-mails that purport to come from companies like America Online, Best Buy, eBay and PayPal.

Reilly's alert says consumers should never respond to an unsolicited e-mail by providing personal or financial information.

"When you go online, make sure you bring a healthy dose of skepticism with you," Reilly said in a prepared statement. "No legitimate company or financial institution would ever e-mail you and ask for your credit card or account number. If you receive such a message, do not respond."
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