The Times West Virginian

December 2, 2012

Consumers urged to take precautions when shopping on Internet

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — As online shoppers search for special gifts this holiday season, they should be aware of the potential dangers lurking on Internet.

While many online transactions are made without any problems through trustworthy websites, consumers still need to be careful, said Jeffrey Lybarger, supervisor of the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3. The center, located in the I-79 Technology Park in Fairmont, sees all of the bad cases where internet fraud is the result.

IC3, a partnership between the National White Collar Crime Center and the FBI, has been operational since May of 2000, he said. The center’s website, www.ic3.gov, is the go-to place for people who have been victimized by any type of online fraud.

Lybarger said more than 20,000 complaints come into IC3’s system every month. Once the complaints are received, analysts from NW3C and the FBI review the information, pull all the data together, and refer cases to law enforcement to investigate.

“What we try to do is we try to look at trends and patterns,” he said.

Cyber Monday was Nov. 26, the Monday after Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Individuals who are perpetrating these types of fraud know the peak time of year when people are going to be online, and they try their best to get individuals to fall prey to their schemes, Lybarger said.

He offered some tips for how individuals can prevent being scammed or having their identity stolen while making purchases over the internet.

Lybarger explained that many websites, especially around the holiday season, may get spoofed. Criminals are able to make websites that looks like Walmart, Target or other stores, and sometimes they look very professional and convincing. A person may get an email with a link inside that takes them to the spoofed website where they can make purchases.

“It’s really easy to create fake web sites now,” he said.

Lybarger urged online shoppers to pay attention to the details, like the spelling for instance, because sometimes these fake websites have information that just doesn’t make sense.

Before entering any type of personal information, the individual needs to make sure the webpage has a secure connection, he said. The URL bar, which shows the web address, should

start with the letters “https.” Websites that aren’t secure will be missing the “s” at the end.

Customers can read reviews from other people who have made purchases from a certain website or check with the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed, Lybarger said. Negative feedback is an indication that it probably isn’t a good idea to make a transaction through that site.

He also doesn’t recommend purchasing anything online or submitting any identifying information while on public networks. Internet users don’t have any control over public Wi-Fi hotspots, and should instead make transactions from their house or other locations that are safer.

“Make sure your virus protection is up to date,” Lybarger said.

He suggested that people avoid using a debit card when buying anything over the Internet, especially with the holiday season in full swing now. If a credit card is compromised, the owner would have the opportunity to contact the bank to get their money back. But debit cards do not offer the same protections.

The best option is to purchase a disposable credit card, such as a Visa, Lybarger said.

“You can use that online and purchase things and if that gets compromised there’s no personal information on it,” he said.

If something happens, the person doesn’t have to deal with canceling their regular credit card or figuring out who has their information, Lybarger said. A disposable credit card offers an extra layer of protection.

Consumers should also check their credit card billing statements often. Many people just pay the bill without bothering to look at the itemized list of purchases on their statements, he said.

Lybarger said scams aren’t just coming through emails anymore. More schemes are showing up that involve mobile devices.

For example, a person may provide his cell phone number and identifying information after filling out a survey for the chance to win money in a prize drawing. This could be a legitimate contest, but some companies will sell that information to other companies and that data can be compromised, Lybarger said.

Then the individual could get a text saying he has won and asking for him to provide information.

If just one or two people fall for this scam, the crook has been successful, he said.

Kids that have smart phones may not question these tactics as much as adults do, and could easily go ahead and enter their information, Lybarger said.

“It opens up a little bit more of a vulnerability for that age group,” he said.

Lybarger said people should remember that if something seems too good to be true, it most likely isn’t true. For instance, an offer for some kind of hard-to-find item at an extremely low price is likely to be a scam.

Consumers who have become victims of online crime can file a complaint at www.ic3.gov.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.