A friend of mine, who works at a law firm, called to tell me about several clients who had come into the law offices in a panic. While searching for information online, they had clicked on a link. Instead of bringing up the search result they expected, pornography popped up on their computer screens. Moments later, before they had time to react to the unexpected images on their computers, their computers froze and the image above appeared. According to the notice, the Department of Justice had suspended their computers “on the grounds of the violation of the law of the United States of America”. To unlock their computers and “avoid other legal consequences”, the screen read, each one of these people was to pay a “release fee” of $300. Apart from the terrible grammar in the notice, there are several red flags to look out for, in order to protect yourself from scams like this:
- If the Department of Justice suspects you of breaking the law, either by viewing child pornography, using illicit software or anything else, for that matter, they will not send you an online notice. They will show up at your door.
- If the Department of Justice believes that you are breaking the law, they will not ask for a payoff so they don’t investigate the alleged crime. That type of behavior is commonly recognized as bribery and that in itself is not legal.
- Just because a website posts pictures of a camera and microphone, informing you that both are on and recording you, it does not automatically mean that you are being recorded. It is important to realize that if you do not have a camera or microphone on your machine, there is no way for anyone to record you. Generally, too, especially with the video recorders on machines, there are lights and other indicators to show that they are on and recording.
- There is no such thing as the Department for the Fight Against Cyberactivity. The first signal that this is not a real department is that Cyberactivity is not a real word. It is also a department that has never been mentioned by any government official. If you receive a notice and it refers to a government department that you are not familiar with, a search of the usa.gov directory of U.S. government departments and agencies will help you determine if the department is real or made up.
- If any department or agency of the United States government requires you to pay a fine, it will never ever tell you to pay it via MoneyPak at your local Walmart, pharmacy or 7-Eleven. Never. Payments to government departments and agencies are made directly to the department or agency in question. For example, when you pay your taxes, you pay them to the Internal Revenue Service and when you pay for your driver’s license, you pay that money to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Never follow instructions to pay via MoneyPak, a wire to a provided account number or anything other than a valid government website. If you are unsure whether a notice is real, do not click on the link provided. Instead, open your own website and type in the department’s web address yourself. In this way, you avoid clicking on a link that may take you to a fake website.
If you are a victim of a crime like this, you should report it to the FBI or to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). In this way, the government is made aware of the scam and can go about warning people and trying to track down the perpetrators. Also, it is important to keep your computer operating systems and software up to date. This helps prevent attacks on your machine. Finally, should your machine be attacked, even with updated systems and software, contact a reputable computer repair expert as your machine may be infected with a virus that will seek personal information on your machine. This personal information may then be used to commit credit card or other financial fraud.
It may seem like a lot but taking these small steps and remaining aware and alert can go a long way to keeping you from being attacked and keeping your money in your pocket should some nefarious party try to take it.