Consumer Law

Scam Alert: The Phishing Game

  • Read incoming e-mail with a skeptical eye
  • Just because an e-mail address looks familiar, doesn't mean it's legitimate
  • Take immediate action if you've given personal information to a suspicious source


You learned it in kindergarten: "Don't talk to strangers!" Many people would never dream of giving the intimate details of their personal life to a complete stranger on the street. Yet people are somehow less inhibited toward people they meet only on a computer screen and can't see face to face. The new generation of snake oil salesmen is here, and they are cleverly hidden behind seemingly legitimate pages on the Internet.

A recent dangerous trick involved the use of a pop-up window appearing to be from a well-known local bank. The pop-up asked you to follow a link and then provide your account information. The irony of this trick was it claimed that your action was necessary because other people had tried to gain access to your bank accounts.

Jealously Guard Your Personal Information

We now live on an information superhighway, where the Internet opens opportunities to give and receive information and ideas. But with this new era has come an endless parade of persons out to deceive and take advantage of trusting consumers. Phishing is the criminal process of attempting to acquire sensitive personal information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by masquerading as a legitimate company in an e-mail message or Web site.

A key warning sign is any Web site or e-mail message that asks you to give them personal information such as your name, address, social security number or other identifying number or bank account numbers. You should always question a request for information the source should already have. Your own bank should already know your account number and all related personal information.

Familiar Icons and Logos Are Not Always What They Seem

You're often led to disclose these personal details by the legitimate appearance of the e-mail message. Scammers often use copycat versions of familiar logos, names and symbols as a trap for the unwary. And always question an alert for highly important information that comes via an e-mail message instead of by more secure means. Scammers often try to force a sense of urgency to get a quick response, before you have time to check whether the message is legitimate.

Take Immediate Action if You Suspect a Scam

Nearly everyone has fallen for a phony e-mail message or mail trick at one time or another. It may seem embarrassing to admit your mistake. However, you should still take prompt action to help others from being harmed. Notify your bank immediately so that they can take the steps needed to protect your funds. Be sure to follow-up with a written note to your bank to confirm your instructions, and keep a copy of your note for yourself. Contact your local police or the prosecutor's office if you've been scammed. If they've received other complaints about the same type of scam, they may be able to arrange a "sting" operation or at least send out a public warning.

As yet, there is no cyberspace equivalent of police walking the beat. The most difficult hurdle to stopping e-highway bandits is the ease with which they can appear and disappear. An attorney can help you assess whether it will be worthwhile to pursue the wrongdoer if you have fallen victim to an e-mail scam. Phishing scams are more likely to be deemed fraudulent because they intentionally deceive you. When you lose money by falling for the scam, it's generally because you relied on the misrepresentation as to the source of the e-mail message.

Fraudulent misrepresentation is a serious offense and could be punished by a criminal prosecution or by a civil lawsuit. But it'll be necessary to identify and locate the scammer who created and disseminated the phishing e-mail. Your attorney may suggest an investigator who can provide insight into whether it'll be possible to locate the source. An attorney will also give you advice about whether the amount of money you lost is substantial enough to justify the expense that will be incurred to pursue the case in the court system.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How long do I have to sue someone for harm caused by a phishing scam? What if it takes time to find who is responsible?
  • Do common homeowner insurance policies offer any protection for damages caused by a phishing scam artist?
  • How aggressive are law enforcement agencies in our area in pursuing phishing scam artists?
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