Boom time for cybercrime

The economy and online social networks are the latest fodder for scams

Last reviewed: June 2009
Dan and pat Quigley in front of their computer
Suspicious site
An online job search led to waves of spam and a disabled computer for Dan and Pat Quigley.
Photograph by Lincoln Potter

This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in June 2009 Consumer Reports magazine.

One in five online consumers were victims of a cybercrime in the past two years, according to the latest Consumer Reports State of the Net survey. That means there's a strong possibility that your money will be added to the $8 billion we estimate cybercrime cost consumers or that your computer will join the 1.2 million others that we figure were replaced because of software infections during that time.

The overall rate of cybercrime hasn't declined much over the five years we've tracked it. Crooks continue to take advantage of new technologies. And consumers, corporations, and the government haven't done all they could for protection.

The problem stands to get worse as rising unemployment and foreclosures fuel a wave of recession-oriented Internet scams. And the soaring popularity of social-networking services, such as Facebook, is creating more openings for identity thieves.

Those are some of the highlights from our research and the national survey of 2,081 online households conducted in January by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Consider these additional findings:

  • Online identity theft is widespread. We project that close to 2 million households have suffered identity theft in the past year as a result of Internet-related activity, most often online shopping.
  • Phishing—sending authentic-looking but fraudulent e-mail designed to steal sensitive personal information—is a continuing concern. We estimate that about 7 million consumers gave phishers personal information over the past two years. That's 1 in 13 online households. Among scam victims, 1 in 7 lost money, comparable with data from our last survey.
  • Many corporations that keep sensitive consumer data, such as credit-card numbers, need to do a better job securing that data by regularly testing their sites' security and by teaching programmers better ways to create secure Web sites.
  • Poorly protected federal computer networks have been attacked by foreign entities and lots of information has been compromised, according to an expert panel that studied U.S. cybersecurity for a year.
  • Not all of the news is bad. Our latest tests of security software show that you can protect yourself against many online threats free of charge. The report also offers other good online safety practices.