Sunday, January 01, 2006

Local residents warned of phishing scam

It's called phishing, but it's not fun for consumers who find themselves on the end of the hook. Recently, Jefferson City citizens have been targets of the practice. Relying on fake e-mails, phishing is an Internet scam featuring links to what appears to be a bonafide Central Bank Web site.

Complete with the official-looking dogwood logo, the e-mails warn that online home banking and bill paying services will be deactivated if the customer doesn't respond with the "requested information" soon.

One woman recently was suckered. She reported the loss first to the bank and later to Jefferson City police. "She's gotten it remedied," said Sgt. Robert Clark. But he noted that people have to be careful, because most of these scams originate overseas. "And it's hard to go to Europe to track these people down," he said.

Local police usually forward the scam to federal investigators."All I can do is urge people, legitimate companies are never going to ask for personal information in an e-mail," Clark said.

"You should call your bank representative if you have questions."That's the same advice given by Dave Westhues, Central Bank's vice president of retail delivery. Westhues said scammers are adept at creating web sites that look exactly like Central Bank's official one. He laments that many banks -- not just Central Bank -- are targeted.

"Typically, the (Web site) is sitting on a server at some business and they don't even know it's there," he said. "We contract with a third party to shut those down, and we can shut them down in less than an hour."

Phishers use pirated e-mail contact lists to harvest potential victims. He said between seven and eight attacks have been stopped this month. Westhues said, when it first started, mainly global companies -- like Bank America, eBay and PayPal -- were targeted. Now, phishers are moving onto mid-sized prey, like Central Bank, which serves a small trade area.

Because the bank is considered "local," people may be more apt to fall for the scam. He said the vast majority of people recognize the scam for what it is, but he added it doesn't hurt to warn customers -- which is why the bank has notified them of the practice in a variety of ways.

Westhues said the bank may send out some e-mail, but they never ask customers to respond. Westhues said the Internet is a safe place to conduct business, but users need to remember three things:

* Never follow a link in an e-mail, particularly to share information the bank already has.

* If you are interested in an e-mail link, close down your e-mail account and type the correct address into the address, or URL, window. "Initiate your own transactions," he said. "Don't follow embedded links in an e-mail."

* Always feel free to call the bank for advice.

"The Internet is a very safe way to do banking," he said.But new technologies can propose problems."We had these same conversations (about protection) when debit and credit cards first came out," he said.

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