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Friday, 19 November, 1999, 12:14 GMT
The growing threat of internet fraud
The workload is spiralling - regional agencies may be needed

BBC TV's Money Programme has investigated the growing problem of internet fraud - its disturbing findings should make every shopper think twice before punching their credit card details online.

Visa International says that half of all credit-card disputes are about internet transactions.

That is despite online transactions making up just 2% of Visa's overall business.

Money is increasingly frequently being wrongly charged to people's credit-card accounts thanks to the internet.

Credit-card numbers obtained by theft or from anarchist websites on the Internet are used to access pornographic net pages, and innocent people are charged.

This huge fraud probably results from negligence by banks, and raises the possibility that credit-cards as currently operated are unsuitable for electronic commerce.

Little trust in security

UK prime minister Tony Blair says e-commerce lies at the heart of his vision for building a modern, knowledge-driven economy.

But the growing security issue is a major snag.

Consumers, who are supposed to benefit so much from doing business on the internet, just do not trust it.

One survey shows that nine out of ten UK consumers are uneasy about submitting credit-card details on the net.

Visa found that across the EU only 5% of consumers trust e-commerce.

Even when there is no credit card fraud, goods correctly ordered and paid for never arrive - another EU study found that 8% of goods ordered online never arrived.

Consumers sense "a kind of chaos" in the internet, according to yet another survey - and in this case at least the customer is far from wrong.

California dreams of net riches - especially fraudsters
Fraudsters have been following businesses in embracing e-commerce - with variants of old scams and whole new ones, playing on people's naive belief in what they read online.

Law enforcement agencies across the world are gloomy about the problem.

Los Angeles attorney Christopher Painter said: "If you have an explosive growth on the Internet, you're going to have this great huge growth in fraudulent conduct and crime committed over the internet."

Detective Sergeant Nigel Jones, Secretary of the Association of Chief Police Officers Computer Crime Group in the UK, added: "We've not reached the levels that the Americans have yet, but if they are anything to go by we're in for a serious problem."

The internet is home to several major financial scams, many promising online investors huge returns.

The Money Programme filmed with California's internet enforcement unit, focusing on two cases.

In one, a fraudster advertised on a reputable financial web page to sell shares in his hi-tech company that he called "the next Microsoft".

There was no product and no company, but dozens of people invested and lost their money.

International squads needed

In another, financial advisers across America were targeted using the internet to sell their clients life insurance policies belonging to people with fatal illnesses.

Fifteen hundred investors bought them and nearly $100m was paid to the fraudster, who spent much of it in Las Vegas.

The supposedly dying patients were names taken from the phone book.

And there are more exotic scams. One fraudster forged a page from Bloomberg's financial news website to talk up the price of shares in a company called Pairgain.

The share price jumped by 30%, before collapsing when the forgery was exposed.

Supposedly smart online investors were deceived however, bought the shares and lost their money.

No easy answers

So what can be done to protect the public from internet conmen, when the internet knows no national boundaries and is accessible everywhere?

The US, UK and other countries are looking at national cyber-crime police units, though none are yet up and running.

Financial regulators like the SEC in the US and the FSA in the UK are trying to control websites in their own jurisdictions.

Under pressure from consumer organisations, international bodies like the OECD and EU are struggling to get agreement on standards for electronic commerce to be enforced by national governments, but progress is lamentably slow.

Business opposes the idea, wanting instead to rely on self-regulation without government intervention.

Such is the free and open nature of the internet that regulation is near-impossible anyway, and the best advice the regulators have for those who invest or shop using the web... is to rely on their common sense.

The 30-minute Money Programme special examining the issue of internet fraud will be broadcast at 2030 GMT on Sunday on BBC 2. It will also be streamed live on BBC News Online.

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See also:
06 Nov 99 |  The Money Programme
The Money Programme Home
22 Mar 99 |  Your Money
Card payment fraud jumps
13 May 99 |  The Economy
Internet fraud to cost UK business billions
15 Mar 99 |  Business
Chips down for credit card fraud
09 May 99 |  Your Money
Fighting online fraud
Links to other Business stories are at the foot of the page.