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Educate public about phone, Internet scams

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Scams that separate the gullible from their money have always been with us. Unfortunately, technology has vastly expanded the reach of scammers, who use mass automated techniques to attack Internet accounts and telephone lines.

Especially disturbing is the use of the old-fashioned land line, because it attacks the most vulnerable group — the elderly, who often don’t use computers or cellphones.

Customers of Central Pacific Bank found that out this month, when a large automated phone and Internet scam targeted debit card users. It’s a sign that Hawaii’s banks and other organizations should find ways to expand a campaign to alert their customers to these ongoing crimes and advise them how to avoid being victims.

Central Pacific issued an alarm to consumers, warning them that phishing attempts, using text and automated voice messages, were being made to trick them into divulging debit card information. The bank advised them to contact the bank’s customer service center.

The CPB statement is similar to warnings made by other banks in recent years. But the usual warnings may not be enough.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that phishing and phone scams are on the rise in Hawaii, according to Edward Y.W. Pei, executive director of the Hawaii Bankers Association. Nationally, the FBI and private anti-scam organizations have reported sharp increases in these automated scamming attempts.

Many customers, especially younger ones, may be confident that they are too smart to be victimized. The evidence suggests otherwise. Results from a new study by researchers at North Carolina State University showed that nearly everyone in a group of 53 undergraduates failed when asked to distinguish malicious emails from legitimate ones.

Indeed, thousands of at least 2 million people, who received an email in May notifying them that their order on "Wallmart’s" website was being processed, clicked on the email link, which led to a download of a virus on their personal computers. It was actually a fake Walmart site.

"You get lots and lots of text and emails that you’ve won prizes or this or that," said Pei. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

All of Hawaii’s banks are trying to educate customers to be alert and recognize suspicious phone calls or messages, Pei said.

"Hopefully we’re going to do it as an industry campaign as well."

That’s a good idea. A coordinated campaign with banks, telephone companies, Internet providers and other groups, especially those who advocate for seniors, would help make skepticism and good sense a common response to increasingly aggressive scammers.

As Hawaii’s population ages, the need for such a campaign will only grow.

There are other solutions. For $1 a month, Hawaiian Telephone Co. consumers can block all calls without phone numbers. Oceanic Cable customers can see incoming phone numbers of their television sets.

Are these solutions effective? Maybe, but they’re not foolproof.

"These scammers seem to find your phone numbers in a variety of ways," Pei said, "and I don’t know how they do it and I don’t know that there’s a surefire way to prevent it."

He said consumers must "realize that banks will never ask you for account information because obviously they have that information."

In other words, never divulge any of your account information, including your account number, your personal identification number or the security code on the back of your credit card.

"Obviously," Pei said, "if you’re initiating the call and you’re buying something, those questions will be asked. But otherwise, if somebody is calling, texting or in some other way contacting you and probing for account information, you should just hang up."

Good advice.

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