New Castle News

February 6, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Scammers learn to feed off human fear

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — A few weeks ago, my computer went crazy.

Boxes filled with warning notices and ominous-looking yellow triangles popped up on my screen, to tell me my system was filled with dangerous viruses. I was in imminent danger of having all sorts of personal information, passwords and financial data stolen.

The only hope, these warnings informed me, was to sign up for the 2012 version of Vista Home Security, an antivirus program that would defeat the dangerous virus horde. But I needed to act quickly — or else.

It was all pretty scary stuff.

However, I didn’t act quickly; instead, I checked it out. Call it the journalist in me. Or perhaps I’m naturally skeptical — especially when someone is trying to frighten me into doing something. What was popping up on my computer screen didn’t add up.

I have two layers of antivirus protection and a firewall on my computer. How could it suddenly suffer so many Internet infections?

Also, I was unfamiliar with Vista Home Security. Where did it come from, and why was it trying to do me a favor?

So I Googled it and discovered Vista Home Security was a subtle virus capable of slipping past many antivirus programs. And rather than protect my computer, its real goal was to get me to sign up for its top protection, which would require me to submit a credit card number.

In other words, the virus wouldn’t steal my information, I would give it up gladly.

My guess is that a lot of people fall for this scam, in part because it looks real and in part because fear is a powerful human motivator. And the people behind such scams know that.

In fact, it’s fear and greed that make the vast majority of scams so dangerous. If people bothered to stop and think, it’s doubtful they ever would fall for them.

Unfortunately a lot of people do. That’s why my email is full of requests from people in far-off lands who are trying to smuggle millions of dollars out of their countries, and they just happened to select me to assist with the effort.

Naturally, I will receive a big cut of the loot for any assistance I render. All I need to do is provide a bank account number or some other information to make it possible.

Scams come in countless varieties these days, made possible by the technology of the Internet and telephones. There’s not a week that goes by without several coming to our attention in the newsroom.

Sometimes, people seem to be surprised these scams exist. I’m surprised when I come across individuals who haven’t been jaded by them. They’re everywhere.

And they change constantly. No source of information can keep up with the task of alerting the public to new ones that crop up.

But if they come in assorted forms and in various degrees of sophistication, how are people supposed to protect themselves and their information?

The answer is simple: Be suspicious.

Skepticism is a wonderful quality. It not only protects against scams, it helps to inoculate us from all manner of manipulation.

We’re going to need it in the coming election season, when we’re bombarded by all those scary and negative ads that are coming our way.