Security Experts:

2010, A Great Year To Be a Scammer.

We are barely four months into the year, and 2010 has already proved itself a dream for scammers and fraudsters around the world, filled with opportunity and prosperity. They have had many events working to their advantage, helping them prey on and exploit innocent victims.

With the healthcare reform law only days old, scammers are already at work attempting to sell phony health insurance plans to consumers. The heavily-marketed 2010 United States Census has provided an opportunity to launch a number of different attempts to steal personal information for the purpose of identity theft. In January, the tragic earthquake in Haiti provided another rich opportunity for fraud. Millions of people reached into their pockets to help, but not all those dollars reached victims of the quake. As always, as tax season approaches its peak, scammers are constantly attempting to take advantage of unsuspecting Americans through a variety of online ruses.

Here’s a deeper look into some of the happenings that have helped make 2010 a great year for scammers – at least so far.

The Haiti Earthquake

Charity scams have always been a favorite of fraudsters. After Hurricane Katrina, the FBI felt it necessary to issue a warning when over 4,500 web sites appeared, all attempting to collect donations to help hurricane victims.

The tragic earthquake that struck Haiti in January proved to be an incredible opportunity for scams. Millions of dollars were raised in relief efforts for one of the most deadly natural disasters of all time. Unfortunately, millions of dollars also ended up in the pockets of scammers. After the quake, fraudulent charity sites were up and running almost instantly, some appearing as new charities created for the Haiti earthquake, and some “fake” sites impersonating other well-known charities such as the American Red Cross.

Other scams surrounding the Haiti earthquake include phishing and malware scams as well as “people search” scams offering to find loved ones for a fee. Variants of the Nigerian scam regarding the “release” of large amounts of money tied up in Haiti in the wake of the devastation were also seen.

2010 U.S. Census

With every household required by law to complete the 2010 Census, the door has opened for a variety scams.

Lockheed Martin, hired to manage many back-end functions of the Census, has hired and trained more than 13,000 temporary personnel to handle one of the largest and most sophisticated data capture undertakings in the country. The Lockheed Census team receives up to 12 million Census forms daily, processing as many as 2.5 million forms every 24 hours and answering more than 56,000 telephone inquiries per hour during the peak periods of activity during the end of March and April this year.

Alongside this massive legitimate effort, scammers have managed to capitalize in a number of different areas related to the Census.

Fake Job Opportunities - With many people out of work in a weak economy, scammers have capitalized by advertising fake Census job openings, attempting to collect social security numbers and other personal information from hopeful job seekers. In addition to advertising fake job opportunities, scammers have also advertised other services guaranteeing a federal job for a fee.

Phishing - Scammers have also launched massive phishing scams, typically using a phony e-mail to collect personal or financial information under false pretenses. In these scams, consumers receive an official-looking e-mail saying the Census was not completed correctly and asking for information such as Social Security numbers or bank account information.

Fake Census questionnaires – Along with phishing scams, physical versions of a fake Census have been arriving in the mail, looking like an official Census form but also asking for personal information including bank account information and social security numbers. Scammers instruct users to send these phony forms to a P.O. box or via fax. Scammers have even been reported going door-to-door asking for personal information they say is for the Census.

Phony Census Phone Call – Calls from fake Census workers have also been reported, where a scammer calls citizens claiming to be from the Census Bureau and asking them to divulge personal and financial information. With special technology and hacks, fraudsters have even been able to make the incoming caller ID show up as "US Census" or “Census Bureau,” making the call seem much more believable.

Healthcare Reform Laws

New regulations in healthcare have created new opportunities for fraud. According to Brien Shanahan, Medical Mutual of Ohio’s Director of Legal Affairs, "The scams may promise a variety of bogus benefits. They include fake coverage, where you end up making huge payments for a worthless piece of paper with totally worthless benefits. Some may even offer enticements such as 'medical discount' cards, which are also worthless."

"They may try to tell you that, under the reform law, you will need to buy new health insurance," he adds. "These pitches may come to you in the form of phony emails, fraudulent online ads, door-to-door [sales people] or by way of pushy telemarketers."

2010 Tax Season

While 2010 is no different than any other year when it comes to tax scam opportunities, there has been a spike in tax refund-related phishing and scams.

SonicWALL, Inc., a network security and data protection solutions provider, last week began seeing the expected rise in phishing threats related to the upcoming April 15 IRS tax filing date. "As we've seen in the past, the weeks before April 15th are the most likely for taxpayers to see a rise in tax-related phishing emails," said Leon Hilton, an email security expert at SonicWALL. "We predict that more than 100 million IRS-related phishing emails will be sent to tax payers in the days leading up to and after the April 15 tax filing deadline."

The most prominent phishing scam comes when taxpayers are notified by the IRS that their tax refund is now available. Scammers will then ask users to provide their bank card information and identity information to assure that their refund is deposited in the appropriate account.

Overall, 2010 is certainly off to a great start, filled with opportunity for scammers. Tough times for some have resulted in incredible opportunity for others to prosper. There has certainly been no recession in the booming black market economy and, as things are now, all indications are pointing to an even brighter future.

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For more than 10 years, Mike Lennon has been closely monitoring and analyzing trends in the enterprise IT security space and the threat landscape. In his role at SecurityWeek he oversees the editorial direction of the publication and manages several leading security conferences.