The Internet: Our Shared Responsibility

Denise Richardson

It’s hard to believe that it’s autumn already. Before you know it, the leaves are going to start falling and the kids are going to start fretting over what they want to dress up as for Halloween this year. It will also be a time to once again turn our thoughts toward staying safe online since October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month.

The Internet is a shared resource and securing it is Our Shared Responsibility, the theme for this year’s awareness campaign. Individual actions have a collective impact and when we use the Internet safely we make it more secure for everyone. The National Cyber Security Alliance created the first-ever message to help all digital citizens stay safer and more secure online: STOP. THINK. CONNECT. We know that when we take the time to stop and think about our online activity – before we take certain actions – we are far less likely to fall into the cleverly placed traps. What I’d like to talk about for a moment, though, is that third word: connect. It’s easy for the first two words to overshadow the third, but your ability to connect with others is actually a very important tool when it comes to keeping yourself safe. Not only can understanding connections help you avoid online scams but they can protect you offline as well. Here are a few examples.

Online: Recently, a consumer shared what happened to him when he veered from his normal routine and opted not to go out to a local print shop when he needed to send a fax. Instead he chose to search for online options and found a few, most of which required a monthly subscription. When he finally found one that didn’t, he sent off his fax and didn’t think anything else of it; unfortunately for him, the entire operation was a scam. The website he used had several loopholes in its user agreement that added nearly $50 to the cost of the fax that he sent, plus extra charges if he complained to outside organizations such as the Better Business Bureau or the Attorney General’s office. He tried to explain that the clauses in the agreement didn’t apply to him and was harassed and verbally abused. A quick check online confirmed that this was standard practice for this website. If he had connected beforehand and searched for information and complaints online, warning about the site, he would have been able to avoid it entirely.

Offline: A woman that I know received a call one day from someone claiming to be from Microsoft. He told her that they detected a virus lurking on her computer and that if she signed on to her computer and followed his instructions, he could help her remove the virus and repair any problems. She didn’t know much about computers so she went along with it, but as he continued telling her what to do, she became suspicious. She stopped following his instructions and called her neighbor who happened to be an IT professional. He managed to undo the damage and did a quick search online to confirm what had happened. It’s a good thing that she got off of the phone when she did, because the scammer who had called her was setting her up for some major headaches, which he would then charge her to fix. If she had stopped and thought to search first before entering commands from a stranger then she would have been able learn this was a known scam from the very beginning.

Business: Small business owners can also be targets for online fraud – most recently a bogus “copy-cat” Yellow Page listing scam. This scam operates in several variations, however, most commonly scammers will fax, and email or snail mail fictitious invoices, and then contact the business by phone, demanding payment. The caller claims the business previously authorized the advertising and pressures the business owner into to paying the bogus invoice. A quick online search can often help you determine whether the sales pitch you’re hearing is the real deal or if it’s just another scam that’s targeting your business.

In each of the above scenarios, it’s clear to see the value and importance of remembering to stop and think about what’s going on, and then connect and find out the facts! That’s what National Cyber Security Awareness Month is all about—raising awareness: STOP. THINK. CONNECT. These three simple steps are the starting point for staying safer and more secure online.

Believing that consumers can best protect themselves from becoming a victim of a identity theft, fraud, cyber related crimes, and predatory or abusive practices by being informed of the risks, and potential solutions, Denise Richardson's life work has centered around helping consumers understand, and find better access to, consumer protection. Denise belongs to a number of nationally recognized consumer advocacy organizations and is one of the few non-attorney members accepted in the National Association of Consumer Advocates. She is a Board member of American Consumer Credit Education Support Services, a 501(c)(3) consumer advocacy group whose primary purpose is to disseminate credit education information and assistance to the general public.
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