Online and Computer Scams

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This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by People's Law School in March 2017.

Technology has opened up new opportunities for people with bad intentions to try to trick you out of your money.

Malware or spyware

You’re browsing the internet. An online ad features an item you’ve been thinking of buying. You click on the ad to learn more. A window pops up on your computer saying "Your personal files are encrypted!" The only way to "release" them is by paying a steep fee. If you don’t pay the fee in the next 72 hours, "you will never be able to recover your files".

This is an example of malware, which is software used to disrupt use of a device or gain access to sensitive information. Some malware is called spyware because it is installed on your device without you realizing it.  

Scammers try to install this software on your device so they can fool you into paying them money or gain access to information stored on your device such as bank account details and passwords.

The installation of the software can be triggered in many ways - when you click on a link in an email, download a file from a website, or install free software.  

In fact, it is illegal to install software programs on someone’s device without the consent of the device owner or an authorized user (for example, a family member or employee).  

Phishing emails

You get an email message that appears to be from your bank. The sender’s name, the layout of the email, the logo - it’s all the same as your bank’s, at least on first look. The email says that your account has been compromised, and you need to visit a website to "verify" your account information. As you look more closely at the email, you see there are some typos, the logo is slightly off, and the address of the website is slightly different from your bank’s website.

This email is fake. It has been sent by scammers pretending to be from your bank, trying to trick you into handing over personal and financial information. This is known as phishing. The email is being used as bait to "fish" for victims.

Once the scammers have your information such as bank account details, credit card numbers, and passwords, they use it to take your money and commit more fraud.

Money transfer scams

An email from overseas claims that an important event - such as an inheritance or a change of government - has resulted in a person having a large sum of money which needs to be transferred out of the country. The sender claims that if you help with the transfer, you can keep a portion of the money.  If you reply to the email, the sender says you will receive your "reward" once you pay various "taxes and fees".

This is a money transfer scam. It is sometimes called a Nigerian scam or 419 fraud, after the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud.  

There are many variations of the scam, but all aim to steal your money.

You will never be sent any of the money, and you will lose any amounts you pay in "taxes and fees".

Antivirus software scams

One of the most reported scams targeting Canadians is the antivirus software scam. You get an email or phone call from a company that says your computer has a virus. They say they can "repair" your computer. This can involve installing software or "taking over" your computer to fix it.

The software they install turns out to be malware or spyware that enables the scammer to gain access to your personal information. Or the scammer insists on a payment for their "repair" before they turn the controls of your computer back over to you.

Mobile phone scams

Many of the tricks scammers try with email and computers are also used on mobile phone users.

For example, scammers hide malware in games or apps that you can download on a smartphone. When you download the game or app, the malicious software is installed on your phone. It can then be used by the scammers to steal your personal and financial information.

Other scammers use the missed call scam. They call your phone and hang up so quickly that you can't answer the call in time. You may be tempted to call the number to find out who called you. If it is a scam, you will be paying premium rates for the call without knowing.

Preventing problems

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Here are ways to reduce the risk of being the victim of an online or computer scam.

Protect your devices

Password protect your devices. On your cellphone, lock the keypad when you're not using it. Have software installed on your devices to prevent spam, viruses, and spyware. Keep that software up-to-date.

Be cautious using email

When using email, never click on a link in an email, even to log in to well-known sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Go to the site directly and log in there. Don't open an attachment in an email sent by someone you don't know.

Be cautious online

Don’t click on links unless you trust the site you’re on. Don’t download files or applications unless you can verify the source. When you're using social media services such as Facebook or Twitter, be alert for scammers posing as a friend and trying to trick you into clicking on a link to a malicious site.

Erase information

Make sure your information is completely erased before you sell, recycle or discard your computer or cellphone. This involves more than deleting everything. To make sure that your private information is gone forever, you need to "wipe the hard drive" using special software. You can buy this software or have a professional do this for you.

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