'Spear phishing' scammers buying your personal information




Posted on June 15, 2011 at 5:28 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 15 at 5:44 PM

AUBURN, Wash. – A new international scam called spear phishing – equal parts identity theft and harassment – has arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Scammers basically try to tear your life apart by buying your information and using it against you.

Bruce Morris thought he was a fugitive. The Auburn High School teacher said police officers were calling the school, trying to get him to come in.

"It came from a guy who claimed to be Officer Christopher Thompson," said Morris. "They said it was a crime investigation and that it was a legal matter and there'd be serious consequences if I didn't call them back."

But the truth is Morris is not a criminal. He's the victim of spear phishing.

What's the difference between that and regular phishing?

Simple phishing is when scammers cast a wide net, hoping people give up their personal information through bogus emails from banks and other businesses. Spear phishing is when scammers get a hold of a single person's personal information and extort money.

"They're being told either pay the money or they'll be arrested," said Bob Schroeder from the Federal Trade Commission.

Schroeder said spear phishers are researching police departments so they can call victims with the names of real officers.

"Some of the ones we've seen, they're using names of actual police officers and have spoofed that officer's phone number," said Schroeder.

In Morris' case, fake officers called his job twice.

"The second one I never actually received. It was a substitute office worker who was real concerned that there was going to be police activity coming to school and that I was in real danger," said Morris.

Investigators say spear phishers are reeling in victims' information from offshore Internet payday loan websites. That's exactly what happened to Morris.

"They think they are dealing with somebody who may give them a loan. What they're really dealing with is a company that is simply selling their information," said Schroeder.

The scammers then mine sites like Facebook, digging up even more personal information about victim's friends and family members.

"When they finally do call up the victim, they have so much information, the victim really thinks they are legitimate," said Schroeder.

The best tip to protect yourself is to stay away from online payday websites because once spear phishers get your information, they have your life.

"You just don't know where you're information is going when you put it into a website like that," said Schroeder.

If you need a loan and a bank won't help you, visit a state licensed payday loan center. You can find out if it's licensed on the Department of Financial Institutions website.