Thursday, July 21, 2011

Belshaw's World - pitfalls of the online world

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 13 July 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I am constantly amazed the number of people who want to give me money. The emails often begin “Dearly Beloved” and then go on to advise me that that is a some huge sum sitting in some bank just waiting to be shared with me!

I first came across what would come to be known as the Nigerian scam while living in Armidale. In those pre-email days it came in the form of a letter, but the message was still the same.

Over the years, the messages have evolved, in some cases becoming more sophisticated and plausible. To the original Nigerian scam has been added the lottery win, the bequest complete with lawyer’s details, the charity deal.

Most of these things area reasonably easy to spot because they offer something for nothing. More difficult are the constant stream of emails requesting me to update my bank account details, tax details or some other piece of information.

I first came across this one in the form of a very well presented email apparently from PayPal. It looked quite genuine.

As it happened, I didn’t have a PayPal account and thought that there must have been an error. So I clicked through intending to point the error out.

A page came up requiring me to enter my PayPal details. I couldn’t do that since I didn’t have any to enter, so clicked on another link that actually did take me into the official PayPal site.

You can see how sophisticated it was. The links on the false site actually worked!

Anybody who has been on email for a while quickly learns to be suspicious simply because there is so much of it. However, I can see how easily people could be fooled.

The rise of identity theft has further complicated life.

In a way we are our own worst enemies. Most of us like the convenience of the on-line world, but then we end up placing a lot of personal information on-line, making it available on-line or simply storing it on our own computer. All this makes us vulnerable to theft.

However, it goes further than this, a lot further.

For a whole complex of reasons, Government agencies increasingly demand that we prove our identity. This flows through into the private sector. We need points for this, proof of that.

At the simplest level, identity theft is no more than a stolen credit card number. But what happens if somebody actually steals your full identity? How do you prove who you are? It can, in fact, be very hard.

In all this, the thing that actually annoys me most is the systems set up to stop spam and junk email.

I know that they are important. Without them, my blogs in particular could well submerge in spam comments.

Some do get through as it is. You can nearly always tell that they are spam.

I write something on, say, fossicking in New England. Then I get a comment such as good essay, interesting topic with a link through to limo hire in New York or an on-line essay writing service for students.

Yet my problem with spam is that my spam blocks actually end up excluding really important comments or emails.

Someone asks why I haven’t responded to an email. What email, I reply? Then when I trawl back though the junk mail folder I find it hidden away there in the depths!

There are no easy solutions to any of this. We all just have to learn to manage, to protect ourselves.

Yet it remains a bloody nuisance!

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