The tech-savvy residents of the Washington region are at a greater risk when it comes to cybercrime than other parts of the country, and experts warn that the chance of being victimized is heightened during the holidays when they're shopping online.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, received tens of thousands of complaints from residents in the District, Maryland and Virginia in 2011.
And a report by Internet security company Norton found the risk of falling victim to a cybercrime in D.C. is the highest of any major city in the nation.
|Online holiday tips|
|-- Don't purchase products or gift cards on auction sites or classified advertisement sites with significantly lower prices. In some cases, the items have been purchased with a stolen credit card.|
|-- Beware of scam emails, text messages and phone calls asking to verify credit card information used for a prior purchase.|
|-- Make sure a website is legit. Sites are often created for "one day only" sales that promise too-good-to-be-true prices.|
|-- Offers to make extra money over the holidays by acting as a private reshipper could put you in legal trouble. The goods are often purchased illegally.|
|Top complaint rates|
|(Per 100,000 residents)|
1. Alaska 196, 2. D.C. 137, 3. New Jersey 131, 4. Nevada 130, 5. Colorado 123, 6. Ohio 110, 7. Maryland, 109, 8. Florida 107, 9. Virginia 106, 10. Washington 104
Source: Internet Crime Complaint Center
That makes sense, according to Trent Teyema, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's cyber branch in the District. He said that as more Washingtonians conducting business online using their computers, tablets and cellphones, the likelihood of being victimized increases, too.
"With the Internet, there's still a presumption that 'it's on the Internet, it must be true,' " Teyema said.
Scams now run the gamut of high-brow schemes to swipe credit card information from smartphones and laptops to the older spam email scams and fraudulent loan websites. Victims, Teyema said, are still just as easily fooled by both tactics.
For example, a Gaithersburg man filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau after he was scammed by a payday loan website in September. According to the complaint, the man had received several calls requesting payment as a security measure so he could be wired funds after trying to secure a payday loan online, he wrote.
After sending two money orders for a total of $400 via Western Union, he realized he was being ripped off, according to the complaint.
Calls to the company asking for a refund were unsuccessful, and when the man's efforts grew more persistent, the phone number he'd been instructed to call was disconnected, the complaint said.
The costs of such scams can be crippling. Unsuspecting victims lose an average of more than $1,500 in online scams, according to the complaint center.
The stakes for Silver Spring resident Dick Hoffman were even higher. In April, someone accessed Hoffman's financial information, called his broker and convinced them to transfer $450,000 to a bank in Florida, he said.
Within a few days, the money was sent to a fictitious organization in Miami, Hoffman recalled.
Had that bank not flagged the transfer, Hoffman said he'd never have known the money was missing -- the thieves had changed all of his account information.
"We don't know how they got my personal information. We don't have a clue," Hoffman said. "I'm afraid of giving my Social Security number, or any of my information, out to anybody."
The holiday season is prime time for cybercriminals looking to take advantage of all the season e-commerce, Teyema said, and it's easier to take advantage of shoppers who are stretched thin by holiday pressures.
"They're hoping you're tired, working long hours, just going through email on your iPhone or Droid, and they unwittingly infect themselves," he said. "You think it's a good deal, you give them your information, and then it's gone."
The FBI warns of shopping scams such as purchasing discount gift cards or buying products from phony websites created just for this time of year that tout popular merchandise at impossibly low prices, sometimes advertising "one day only" sales.
"The biggest thing there is to do is make sure it's a reputable vendor," said Sgt. Sean Renauer, head of Montgomery County's financial crimes division.
Shoppers can take basic steps to protect their financial information by researching a website before filling out requests for credit card data and avoiding pop-up ads, even on major shopping websites, said Maryland Assistant Attorney General Karen Straughn.
Use a credit card for online purchases instead of a debit card, Straughn said. Credit card companies can in some cases reimburse customers who've been swindled online.