The year the criminals took over

Wednesday, 1 January 2003, 4:40 PM EST

The cons just kept on coming in 2002. EBay sellers who simply never send the merchandise. Fake online escrow Web sites which lure winners into sending bank wire transfers. Criminals armed with massive lists of stolen credit cards who break into Internet merchant payment systems and refund themselves thousands of dollars. Help desk workers who sell credit reports for $20 a pop.

Thereís nothing new about any of these crimes. Itís just that word is out on which cons work best, and the bad guys are catching on fast: much faster than innocent Net users and law enforcement types.

Moreover, the criminals are no longer shy about their heists, which often now net over $10,000 at a clip. An MSNBC.com investigation published earlier this month revealed that fake escrow site victims are regularly forking over $20,000, $30,000, and in one case $55,000 to con artists who create the looks-like-the-real-thing Web page. Many victims think they are getting a great deal on a new car, or a rare gold watch. Instead, they find they have lost a up to decent yearís salary, with no way to recover the money.

Wire fraud artists have discovered the Internet, too. One tiny merchant found $52,000 moved from her bank account to Spain, exported by clever con artists who simply issued about 1,000 credit card refunds to themselves using her account. And sheís not alone ó a bank official told her some 30 other merchants had fallen victim to the same crime.

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