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What You Need to Know About Online Scamming and the Law

Anyone who has spent time on the Internet knows that things online aren't always as they seem. The general anonymity of the Internet has provided fertile ground for new forms of fraud. Read on to learn more about common types of internet fraud schemes and the steps to take if you've been the victim of such fraud.

Common Types of Internet Fraud Schemes

Online fraud scams can take many forms. Here are just a few of the most common types of online fraud:


In a phishing scheme, the scammer attempts to obtain private information from a victim by posing as a reputable entity in an email or other electronic communication. For example, the scammer may send you an email posing as a bank representative and claiming that your account requires verification. The email would then direct you to a fake banking site where you would be asked to provide sensitive information like your account number, username, password, and more. With this information, the scammer would then have access to your account.

Work at Home

You've probably seen ads online for jobs that seem too good to be true. Unfortunately, most of them are. Many work-at-home schemes require you to purchase expensive materials or pay upfront fees without providing you with the means to earn a living. Others are Ponzi schemes, requiring you to recruit others in exchange for a cut of the fees.

Fake Apartment Rentals

Like work-at-home opportunities, rental ads are sometimes too good to be true. In a rental scam, the perpetrator places an ad on Craigslist or another classified site advertising a rental unit for a good price. The photos and other information are often stolen from legitimate listings. When potential renters show interest, the scammer claims to be out of town and asks them to wire first-month's rent or other fees to an out-of-state location.

“Catfish" Scams

A “catfish" is someone who creates a fake social media account in order to pursue an online romance. Sometimes, catfish convince their victims to send money or gifts, or to pay for their travel or other expenses.

Unexpected Prizes

The Internet is littered with pop-up ads telling you that you've won an iPod or qualified for a free vacation. Are they telling the truth? Probably not. These “contests" often require you to pay certain fees or shipping costs in order to receive your “prize." Of course, most of the time there is no prize and the perpetrators pocket the fees.

If You've Been the Victim of an Internet Fraud Scheme

If you think you've been the victim of an internet scam, the first thing you should do is ask for a refund. If that fails, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or your local consumer protection office. The FTC investigates and prosecutes cases involving a wide range of online fraud, including identity theft, fake sweepstakes, credit scams, and more. You can also file fraud complaints with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The perpetrators of online scams are often charged with federal wire fraud crimes. Wire fraud is similar to regular fraud, except that it involves the use of interstate electronic communications, including email, instant messages, or other online activity. If the perpetrators of an online scam are convicted, they may be ordered to pay restitution to their victims. Restitution is a payment that's intended to financially restore victims of a crime to the point they were at prior to the commission of the crime.

In recent years, federal and state legislators have taken additional steps to help prevent online scams. In 2003, Congress passed the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act in order to combat “spam" email. In 2005, the Anti-Phishing Act was introduced in Congress, proposing a five-year prison sentence for those convicted of phishing. While the Act was never passed into federal law, California, Texas, and a number of other states have adopted the anti-phishing law.

Get Legal Help with Your Internet Fraud Case

Internet fraud schemes can be subject to both federal and state laws depending on the circumstances. If you've been charged with running an internet scam, or any other crime, it's in your best interests to consult with a local criminal defense attorney who can help craft the best defense based on the specific facts of your case. On the other hand, if you're the victim of such a scheme, use the links provided above to file complaints with either the FTC or the FBI.

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