Online scams and identity theft: there’s less to fear than you think

04 May 2018 |Written by Matthew Moxon

In this blog (series) Digital Inclusion Officer Matt challenges some of the scare stories you may see in the media about digital technology, that may strengthen the barriers to becoming digitally included.

These blogs are aimed at Online Centres staff, volunteers, learners, or anyone who might want to support their friends and family to learn how to use a computer for the first time.

He aims to give you the peace of mind and the evidence to reassure yourself or a first time user about going online, as we believe at Good Things Foundation, that the benefits of being online far outweigh the benefits of being off.

One of the biggest barriers to the first-time users of the internet is security. The feeling that by entering information on to a computer you are giving up control of your own personal information and finances. These are perfectly valid concerns to have when you are inputting your postcode or your debit card number; views reinforced by offline media such as mainstream newspapers and TV shows like Rip-off Britain, who provide the worst case scenarios of victims of online scams losing thousands of pounds to fraudsters. But I'm seeking to challenge these stories and argue in favour of the new way, rather than the old.

First, it may be useful to offer simplified definitions of what these terms mean to first-time users, as understanding what something is the best way to make it less intimidating.

Data breach – This is where an organisation holding a large amount of personal information lets that information fall into the hands of someone who shouldn't have it.

Think of it as an old fashioned bank robbery, except rather than taking cash from the back, the thieves have taken the customer registers from the front desk.

Online scams – This is where an online website, programme or an individual, offers you something, either goods or services, usually a fake or a free version of the real thing, in order to gather your personal information or cash - or even just to make you feel silly. These services can also come with dodgy applications or programs, that gather your information over time.

Think of this as some of the vendors at a market selling Calvin Classic boxer shorts rather than Calvin Klein's or selling Adadis trainers rather than Adidas, and then doing a runner before you can get your money back. The trick is spotting the fakes.

Identity theft – This is where a fraudster looks to use information they have gathered about you, using one or both of the above methods, in order to make purchases and take out loans in your name. Personal information can also be sold on to identity thieves.

Think of this as the bank robber or market vendor gathering your details, taking them to the bank branch next door and asking to take out a loan in your name.

Why there's less to fear than you think

In order to reassure a first time internet learner, my first response would be this... By simply learning about and understanding these potential risks, you are less likely to be a victim. By erring on the side of caution, questioning something before you click it and reading up on something before you give it a go, you are already putting yourself in the best position to avoid being scammed. You are right to look before you leap. Our internet security courses on Learn My Way are a great starting point for this.

If your learners are unconvinced, then it's time for some good old statistic proof:

"Comparisons indicate that fraud and computer misuse measured by the CSEW (Crime Survey for England and Wales) fell by 15% compared with the previous year... principally driven by decreases in consumer and retail fraud such as offences related to online shopping or fraudulent computer service calls."

Office for National Statistics on the number of reported cases of Fraud and Computer Misuse

This shows us two things about online security. First, ordinary people like you and me are getting wise to the online scams - especially when it comes to the everyday things you might use the internet for, such as shopping online - and so fewer people are being scammed. Secondly, this shows us that the authorities are more aware and getting better at tackling fraudsters online. In making reporting these crimes easier and recording them more thoroughly they have more information to counter criminals with.

'But what If I do fall for a scam?!' I hear your learners cry! Time for the anxiety crushing pyramid...

Here the ONS have broke down the reports of fraud and computer misuse by level of financial harm caused against the volume of reported incidents.

The vast majority of reports received by the police resulted in no financial cost to the victim, or in the victim being reimbursed. For those that did lose out, those unlucky enough to fall in to the "lower loss" section - "where money was taken or stolen from victims of fraud, in just under two-thirds (63%) of incidents the victim lost less than £250".

The point to make to your learners is that the worse a situation- the less likely it is to happen. This same thinking applies to data breaches too, if an organisation that you receive services from has a breach, and if this results in you losing out, and if you can't be refunded (that's a lot of ifs) - in that case, time to call in the big guns and get yourself on Rip-off Britain.

Get em' Angela!

The follow up argument to this would be – "Well if I don't go online, then there's a 0% chance of me being scammed, right?" Not quite, as Angela would no doubt tell you, there are plenty of ways to scam people without using the internet. My argument would be that ignorance is by no means bliss. By not learning how to use the internet and having your basic digital tools in your back pocket you are, in fact, more at risk of fraudsters. There are millions of people who use the internet everyday – hassle free – to contact relatives, book holidays abroad and have shopping delivered right to their doorstep, and that's just for starters! Who wouldn't want more of that?!

This is the first in a series of blog posts I will be writing about the scare stories around digital, and how these might be tackled in order to get people online. Keep an eye out for the next post...