A police officer I spoke with several months ago compared the Internet to a dark alley where every criminal in the world is lurking, just waiting for you to enter. Think about that for a second. It’s true. Every scam artist, sexual predator, thief and other scoundrel you can imagine has you and every other potential victim right at his or her fingertips online. And they’re all just waiting for you to slip up in some way to take advantage of the opportunity to wreak havoc on your life.
The officer’s warning came back to me this past week when I read about the devastating circumstances of 32-year old Tim Bosma, who was murdered after two men answered an ad for a pick-up truck Bosma was selling online. Allegedly, the people involved stole the truck and burned the body of the churchgoing, married father of a two-year old girl to cover their tracks. The bizarre circumstances of the crime captivated Canadians – and also made us question the safety of online advertising sites.
If people have problems with legitimate sites run by honest people, such as those used by Bosma, just imagine the problems created by the millions of questionable sites and the unscrupulous people who operate them. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received almost 300,000 reports from fraud victims last year totaling over a half-a-billion dollars. Obviously, that’s just a tiny fraction of the worldwide scams that are being run.
After reading Will Ferguson’s frightening novel “419” last year, I realized what a scary business this can be. Although it’s a fictional book, the title refers to a section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraud. If you’re not sure what I’m referring to, think of the hundreds of emails you’ve received from “Nigerian princes” and you’ll know what I mean. It’s hard to believe people are actually taken in by these scams, but the fact that they’re popular in dozens of countries and “employ” thousands of people worldwide must mean they’re also pretty effective.
On top of the hundreds of millions of dollars involved every year, they’ve also led to kidnapping and murder, along with suicides by the victims whose lives have been ruined.
If scams don’t scare you, what about cyberstalking and cyberbullying? One of the most worrisome parts of the Internet is its anonymity. It’s been well-documented that people say and do things on the web that they wouldn’t dream of doing in person. During a recent session on cyberbullying, I learned how easy it is to decipher someone’s identity through chat rooms, Facebook and other social media. Yet, time and time again, people let down their guards online and give out personal details to virtual strangers whose real identities they have no clue about.
In one horrifying incident, a male teenager befriended someone online who he thought was a friend his own age and shared the same passions and sensibilities. The boy revealed personal details of his life he thought would remain private. Suddenly, the “friend” turned against him and revealed all those details to his friends and family, turning him into a social pariah. The initial damage that was done and the bullying that followed led the youngster to commit suicide, bringing a tragic conclusion to what had begun as an innocent friendship.
If you’re appalled by this story, wait until you hear the ending. It turns out the cyber-friend who the boy thought was someone in his own age group was actually an ex-friend of his mother. When the relationship between his mother and the friend ended, the spurned acquaintance decided to get back at the mother by exacting revenge on her former friend’s son. The story is almost as unfathomable as it is heartbreaking, but provides a valuable lesson for everyone who surfs the net.
When my kids first started going online, I’d often tell them, “Never believe anything you read on the Internet.” They thought I was just being facetious but, as they’ve grown older, they’ve realized what I meant. The message I tried to impart was, simply, to question everything, to assume that there may be an ulterior motive or unsavoury purpose for every online offer, invitation or solicitation you receive.
Recently, one online shopping network that offered unbeatable prices on high-ticket items received some bad attention in the media. People were buying up jewelry, designer clothing, and other outrageously expensive products for pennies on the dollar and were surprised when the items they received were actually cheap knockoffs worth exactly what they’d paid for them.
In the article I read on the scam, the vast majority of commenters said the problem wasn’t with the sellers but with the buyers, who believed naively that someone would be selling $2,000 diamond rings for $25.00. Although the expression “You get what you pay for” may be an old one, it still applies quite nicely to what’s happening more and more frequently online today.
Perhaps it may seem like pretty cynical advice but, honestly, it makes good sense to trust no one, question everything and expect the worst when you’re dealing with people you don’t know online. After all, if you’re going to enter that dark alley where all the criminals in the world hang out, it makes sense to be well-armed before you wander in. Beware.