New Internet Scam Worries Feds

Stealing identities and credit card numbers with bogus e-mail and Web sites that appear to come from legitimate companies is an increasing problem on the Internet, federal officials warned Monday.

The Federal Trade Commission (search) said it had brought its first case against this type of scheme, called "spoofing" or "carding." A 17-year-old California boy accused of posing as America Online (search) agreed to settle federal charges by accepting a lifetime ban on sending junk e-mail and paying a $3,500 fine, the FTC said.

The FBI has received increasing numbers of complaints about this kind of scam, said Keith Lourdeau, a section chief with the bureau's Cyber Division.

"Due in part to this growing scam, we are seeing a rise in identity theft (search), credit card fraud and other Internet frauds," Lourdeau said at a news conference with officials from the FTC and EarthLink. Officials said they didn't know how many people have been victimized by the scam.

In the California case, consumers received authentic-looking e-mails claiming there was a billing problem with their AOL account and asking them to update their information or risk losing Internet access, the FTC said. The message included a link to an "AOL Billing Center," a fake Web page dressed up with the company's logo, colors and links to real AOL sites.

The counterfeit site directed consumers to fix the billing problem by entering credit card numbers and other sensitive personal information including AOL screen names and passwords, Social Security numbers, bank routing numbers, credit limits, mother's maiden name and billing addresses.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said the company will never ask its customers for their password or billing information.

"If they ever get an e-mail purporting to be from AOL that asks them for this information, then clearly it's an online billing scam," he said.

The FTC said the stolen information was used to order merchandise and make online payments worth at least $8,000. The agency said it would not release the name of the teen involved because he is a minor.

"Don't take the bait. Be skeptical of e-mail messages telling you your account will be shut down," FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson said. "If you do receive an e-mail warning like this, don't click on the link."

Instead, he said, people should contact the company directly by phone or through a Web site or e-mail address known to be authentic.

Officials said consumers also should:

-- Be wary of e-mail requests for personal information, especially when they come from companies that should already have the information.

-- Make sure an Internet connection is secure -- with an icon of a lock visible on the Web browser -- before submitting personal information.

-- Monitor credit card and bank statements for unauthorized charges.