Online fraud: the real dangers
By Diane Clement
Internet banking is convenient. It is so convenient that, once smitten, few bank customers want to return to boring bank queues or can't-be-bothered clerks. The same goes for online shopping.
However, so easy is it to manage and spend money in this way that too many of us ignore the risk of online fraud. The new credit card chip and pin system has caused a drop in credit card fraud.
Sadly, however, criminals have intensified their online banking fraud efforts, and this is now a rapidly growing crime. In 2005, online banking fraud in the UK rocketed by 90% to £23.2 million a year (about US $40m) as fraudsters found more innovative ways of raiding our bank accounts and credit cards.
As long as you aren't negligent or collude with criminals, your bank should cover your losses.
Computer viruses used to be the biggest worry for internet users. These nasty little bits of software would be loaded surreptitiously onto your computer when you clicked on an innocent attachment you received in an email. The attachment was probably disguised as a picture, someone's contact details or even a link to a website. Once unleashed, the virus could cause all sorts of damage to your PC.
Viruses are still a problem. But these days there are many other nasties out there including trojans, worms, malware and root kits to practices such as phishing, pharming and spyware. It is not necessary to know what all these terms mean, but you do need to protect your computer against them.
As with viruses, most of these nasties are likely to find their way to you via email, although you can also become a victim of internet fraud by buying goods from a fake website that appears to be selling something but steals your credit card number when you type it in.
So-called phishing attacks, in particular, are on the rise. This is when criminals create realistic-looking copies of legitimate bank websites and then send out emails inviting users to log-in because their 'security details need updating'.
The link in the email will look something like hsbc.co.uk or halifax.co.uk, but the link will actually take you to a site that looks exactly like your bank's, but has a different web address - often consisting of just numbers. If you fail to notice this, and you type in your online banking login details you are passing them straight into the hands of criminals.
As it is the banks and credit card companies that usually end up footing the bill for fraud, it is not surprising they are looking for ways to clamp down. Some banks, such as Barclays, provide customers with free anti-virus software.
Others are experimenting with systems that make it more difficult for criminals to record what you are doing online.
An example of fraudulent online banking e-mail sent to The New Black Magazine:
Dear Nationwide Building Society Member,
To ensure your protection, we've now blocked access to your accounts. You won't be able to gain access to your accounts until you've done this. To access your account please:
Click here to enter your account number
After completing this process, you will be informed that your account has been updated and you will be redirected to the actual Online Access Agreement, for you to review.
Please do not reply to this e-mail. Mail sent to this address cannot be answered. For assistance, log in to your Egg Banking account and choose the "Help" link in the footer of any page.
To receive email notifications in plain text instead of HTML, update your preferences here.
Thank you for using Nationwide Building Society!
The Nationwide Building Society Team
Email ID AW8741
As you bank online, beware of scams and suspicious e-mails
However, you can't just rely on the banks to provide security. There are plenty of simple steps you can take to protect yourself from fraud, many of which won't cost a penny.
When emailing, always use spam filters. Software such as Microsoft Outlook can automatically move spam from your inbox to a spam folder or delete it. You may also wish to use an internet service provider (ISP) that automatically detects spam and removes it before you receive it.
Never click on links or attachments in emails unless you are 100% sure that the email is legitimate. Remember criminals can hi-jack computers connected to the internet and use them to send out malicious emails.
Remember also that legitimate websites never send emails asking you to click on a link to log on to a site. Protect yourself by always typing in the address of your bank or online shopping site yourself, rather than by following links.
When shopping, only buy goods from secure websites you know and trust, says Ken Farrow, group head of fraud at Lloyds TSB and a former head of the fraud squad at City of London Police. Secure website addresses start with https and may use a security system such as Verified by Visa or MasterCard SecureCode security for online payments.
All this will improve your online safety, but to really protect your PC, you need to invest in some sophisticated software. Unfortunately, relatively few people purchase anti-virus software or they don't update it. If you let the free subscription you received when you bought your computer lapse, you leave your computer open to attack.
To keep your computer safe from increasingly sophisticated criminals, you need to install security software that includes a firewall and anti-virus and anti-spyware software. A built-in guard against spam would also be helpful. New and less confident users of the internet might want to get an all-in-one security software package from a company such as Norton, which sells an anti-virus, firewall and anti-spyware software bundle for around £50. McAfee offers a similar bundled option.
Alternatively, you may prefer to buy your anti-virus, firewall and spyware software separately. It is possible to buy security software in high street stores such as John Lewis or Dixons. However, you can often get a better deal online from websites such as Amazon.com, so it is worth shopping around.
People on a budget may prefer to download free products from websites such as Download.com or Tucows.com. Many free products are either cut-down versions, or require you to manually update them every week, which means that you need to be super-organised. Whatever you do, don't get bogged down in the detail. It is much better to have some form of protection in place than nothing.
Help and advice about preventing all types of online banking fraud is available at banksafeonline.org.uk.
With thanks to Interactive Investors.