What Are The Major Types of Internet Fraud?
In general, the same types of fraud schemes that have victimized consumers and investors for many years before the creation of the Internet are now appearing online (sometimes with particular refinements that are unique to Internet technology). With the explosive growth of the Internet, and e-commerce in particular, online criminals try to present fraudulent schemes in ways that look, as much as possible, like the goods and services that the vast majority of legitimate e-commerce merchants offer. In the process, they not only cause harm to consumers and investors, but also undermine consumer confidence in legitimate e-commerce and the Internet.
Here are some of the major types of Internet fraud that law enforcement and regulatory authorities and consumer organizations are seeing:
Auction and Retail Schemes Online.
According to the Federal Trade Commission and Internet Fraud Watch, fraudulent schemes appearing on online auction sites are the most frequently reported form of Internet fraud. These schemes, and similar schemes for online retail goods, typically purport to offer high-value items - ranging from Cartier® watches to computers to collectibles such as Beanie Babies® - that are likely to attract many consumers. These schemes induce their victims to send money for the promised items, but then deliver nothing or only an item far less valuable than what was promised (e.g., counterfeit or altered goods).
Business Opportunity/"Work-at-Home" Schemes Online.
Fraudulent schemes often use the Internet to advertise purported business opportunities that will allow individuals to earn thousands of dollars a month in "work-at-home" ventures. These schemes typically require the individuals to pay anywhere from $35 to several hundred dollars or more, but fail to deliver the materials or information that would be needed to make the work-at-home opportunity a potentially viable business.
Identity Theft and Fraud.
Some Internet fraud schemes also involve identity theft - the wrongful obtaining and using of someone else's personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain.
In one federal prosecution, the defendants allegedly obtained the names and Social Security numbers of U.S. military officers from a Web site, then used more than 100 of those names and numbers to apply via the Internet for credit cards with a Delaware bank.
In another federal prosecution, the defendant allegedly obtained personal data from a federal agency's Web site, then used the personal data to submit 14 car loan applications online to a Florida bank.
Investment Schemes Online
Market Manipulation Schemes. Enforcement actions by the Securities and Exchange Commission and criminal prosecutions indicate that criminals are using two basic methods for trying to manipulate securities markets for their personal profit. First, in so-called "pump-and-dump" schemes, they typically disseminate false and fraudulent information in an effort to cause dramatic price increases in thinly traded stocks or stocks of shell companies (the "pump"), then immediately sell off their holdings of those stocks (the "dump") to realize substantial profits before the stock price falls back to its usual low level. Any other buyers of the stock who are unaware of the falsity of the information become victims of the scheme once the price falls.
For example, in one federal prosecution in Los Angeles, the defendants allegedly purchased, directly and through another man, a total of 130,000 shares in a bankrupt company, NEI Webworld, Inc., whose assets had been liquidated several months earlier. The defendants then allegedly posted bogus e-mail messages on hundreds of Internet bulletin boards, falsely stating that NEI Webworld was going to be taken over by a wireless telecommunications company. At the time of the defendants' alleged purchases of NEI Webworld stock, the stock was priced between 9 cents and 13 cents a share. Ultimately, in a single morning of trading, NEI Webworld stock rose in 45 minutes from $8 per share to a high of $15 5/16, before falling, within a half-hour, to 25 cents per share. The defendants allegedly realized profits of $362,625.
In another federal prosecution in Los Angeles, a man who worked for a California company, PairGain Technologies, created a bogus Bloomberg news Web site which falsely reported that PairGain was about to be acquired by an Israeli company, and posted fraudulent e-mail messages, containing links to the counterfeit Bloomberg news site, on financial news bulletin boards. On the day that the bogus report was posted on the Internet, PairGain stock rose approximately 30 percent before PairGain issued its own press release stating that the report was false.
Second, in short-selling or "scalping" schemes, the scheme takes a similar approach, by disseminating false or fraudulent information in an effort to cause price decreases in a particular company's stock.
For example, in one recent federal prosecution, a man who described himself as a "day trader" allegedly posted (more than 20 times) a bogus press release falsely stating that a major telecommunications- and Internet-related company, Lucent Technologies, Inc., would not meet its quarterly earnings estimates. The day trader allegedly traded approximately 6,000 shares of Lucent stock the same day that he posted the bogus press release. The false reports allegedly drove the stock's price down 3.6 percent and reduced Lucent's market value by more than $7 billion.
Other Investment Schemes
Other types of fraudulent investment schemes may combine uses of the Internet with traditional mass-marketing technology such as telemarketing to reach large numbers of potential victims.
In a federal prosecution in San Diego, a major fraudulent scheme used the Internet and telemarketing to solicit prospective investors for so-called "general partnerships" involving purported "high-tech" investments, such as an Internet shopping mall and Internet access providers. The scheme allegedly defrauded more than 3,000 victims nationwide of nearly $50 million.
Some Internet fraud schemes, which appear to be variations on the online auction schemes described earlier, involve the use of unlawfully obtained credit card numbers to order goods or services online.
One widely reported and intricate scheme, for example, involves offering consumers high-value consumer items, such as video cameras, at a very attractive price (i.e., below the price set at legitimate e-commerce Web sites). When a potential consumer contacts the "seller," the "seller" promises to ship the consumer the item before the consumer has to pay anything. If the consumer agrees, the "seller" (without the consumer's knowledge) uses that consumer's real name, along with an unlawfully obtained credit card number belonging to another person, to buy the item at a legitimate Web site. Once that Web site ships the item to the consumer, the consumer, believing that the transaction is legitimate, then authorizes his credit card to be billed in favor of the "seller" or sends payment directly to the "seller."
As a result, there are two victims of the scheme: the original e-commerce merchant who shipped the item based on the unlawfully used credit card; and the consumer who sent his money after receiving the item that the "seller" fraudulently ordered from the merchant. In the meantime, the "seller" may have transferred his fraudulent proceeds to bank accounts beyond the effective reach of either the merchant or the consumer.
Some Web sites on the Internet have purported to offer those who want a "quick divorce" an opportunity to obtain a divorce in the Dominican Republic or other foreign countries for $1,000 or more, without even having to leave the United States. These sites often contain false, misleading, or legally inaccurate information about the process for obtaining such divorces (e.g., that neither spouse has to visit the country in which the divorce is being sought). Typically, people who have sent money to one of these schemes eventually receive false assurances that they are legally divorced. In fact, victims of the scheme have neither received legitimate legal services nor obtained valid divorces. People who are interested in obtaining a divorce, whether in the United States or elsewhere, should seek a lawyer with whom they can speak personally, and not rely solely on e-mail exchanges or online information.