TAMPA — Debora Brown, an investigator for the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency, recently received a case about a woman who tried to apply for a payday loan online.
The woman never received the money, but she later got several harassing phone calls from debt collectors around the country. They threatened to put her in jail if she didn't send a check. So she did, despite not owing any money.
The agency found that the woman's information had been distributed by third-party vendors from the website she used.
Such cyber crimes are increasing, Brown says. And that's especially true in Florida, which had the nation's second-highest number of cyber crime victims in 2011 and more than $31.5 million in losses, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Though seniors don't make up the largest demographic of cyber crime victims, Brown said those numbers are increasing as well.
"Seniors are less victimized than other age demographics because they're on the Internet less," she said. "But as things are going paperless, and they're encouraged to use the Internet more, you're seeing more and more cases."
Brown recently presented cyber crime safety tips to a group of senior citizens at Memorial Hospital of Tampa. She told them there are numerous ways such crimes occur.
"Everything that used to be done on the phone or by mail can now be done by Internet," she said.
Among those attending was Ann Stanley, who said she was the victim of identity theft last year. Though she said she has since canceled all her online accounts, she thought the topic was important and wanted to pass on Internet safety tips to her children.
Linda Reece, program manager for Senior Advantage at Memorial Hospital, said the issue affects countless seniors. "There's barely a day that passes that you don't hear about a story like this in the news," she said.
Among cyber crime trends, there is the online auto auction fraud that resulted in $8.2 million in losses nationally in 2011. That scam tends to target more men than women.
But then there are romance scams, which tend to target women. Those resulted in $50.4 million in losses nationally in 2011. In a romance scam, people feign affection and then claim financial hardship. Others ask for airfare to visit their new online mate.
"I've literally had elderly ladies from my church who lost their spouses years ago on the Internet looking for love," Brown said. "It's a huge problem. These criminals go on these dating sites and pretend they're in love. … If they ask for money, it's a scam."
Brown also recommended that seniors use caution when participating using online auctions such as eBay and when buying or selling merchandise on Craigslist. Sellers, she said, are often the target of this scam: Buyers will bid on an item and send a fraudulent check for an amount greater than the value of the item, and then ask for money back.
"When you're on the Internet, if it's to good to be true, I promise you — it is," Brown said.
There are also phishing scams, or the more recent SMishing scams for smart phones, in which false messages — sometimes using the actual logos of banks or institutions like the IRS — ask for credit card or personal information with false promises of money or products in return.
Brown recommended not paying for online purchases with cashier's or personal checks, debit cards or wire transfers. The safest method, she said, is to use a separate credit card solely for Internet purchases. Federal law limits a cardholder's liability to $50 for unauthorized credit card use, though most companies will waive those fees.
Brown also said to look for a secure lock displayed on a website, or URLs starting with "https" to guarantee safe transactions. She also recommended limiting activities while using public Wi-Fi networks, including places like libraries or restaurants, where information can easily be accessed.
Gloria Juceam, an 83-year-old Brandon resident, said she and her husband, Donald, recently started using online banking.
"We should be aware of these things," she said. "We're from a different generation. Today, it's a whole new ball game."