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Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg urges internet awareness to protect against cyber scams

May 6, 2020 

As society depends more on the internet for shopping and other matters during the COVID-19 crisis, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is urging people of all ages to stay vigilant about cyber security.

“With more people than ever before using the internet for everything from shopping to meetings and even home schooling because of the pandemic, now is the time to double-down on safe cyber practices and reinforce good habits,” Ogg said. “People need to be using anti-virus software, staying vigilant when opening emails and understand how these scams work.”

One common scheme is an email telling the target that the scammer knows something embarrassing about them and will release it if they do not receive money.

Scammers will buy or obtain emails and passwords from data breaches then use that information to try to convince people that their email or computer has been compromised.

“This scam is quick and easy to do,” said Assistant District Attorney Keith Houston who oversees the cybercrimes unit. “When people get these emails, I tell them to change all their passwords after running a good virus program to check their devices.”

The scam plays on people’s fears by suggesting they were caught doing something inappropriate. It takes a scammer, who can be anywhere in the world, less than an hour to set up the email address and account for payment. Then they can send tens of thousands of emails at once using a mass messaging app.

“If only 2 to 3 people pay, the scammer made $4,000 to $6,000 for less than an hour of work,” Houston said. “No one is immune from being targeted. We use all the tools at our disposal to go after these high-tech thieves but everyone needs to be vigilant.”

For you own financial safety, it pays to be internet aware.

  • Everyone who uses a computer, smart phone or tablet needs to routinely clean their desktops, mobile devices and web browsers. Do regular updates, turn on firewalls, use anti-virus software and lock the device when not in use. Also, disable any unwanted or needed apps, programs or services not required to run the device. More than three-fourths of successful attacks are on phones and mobile devices, usually through apps.
  • Beware of unfamiliar emails with links to photos or websites. Rather than clicking on a link, just open a new page in your browser and type in the link address to make sure you go to the right website. 
  • “Phishing” is the fraudulent attempt to obtain sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, credit card details or other personal information by disguising an electronic communication. Phishing can look like an innocuous or legitimate email message.
  • “Spoofing” is the use of a fake website or email to obtain personal identification or even convince someone to send a check to a fraudster

Criminals also target the lonely or elderly through romance scams. The hacker will create an online persona to target a victim often by impersonating a sympathetic person like a deployed soldier or a disabled person. These are professional con men (and women) who will spend months cultivating a relationship before asking for money.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, there was $3.5 billion in total loss to online fraud across the country in 2019, an $800 million increase from 2018. The total estimated loss since 2015 is estimated at $10.2 billion. Since the District Attorney’s Office launched our cybercrime unit two years ago, we have filed charges in fraud cases totaling more than $50 million in stolen money.