Protect yourself and your personal information at all times on the internet.
- The internet is filled with scammers looking to steal your private information.
- The Better Business Bureau has shared important information on the scams that are currently trending and ways that internet users can avoid them.
- Every internet user should also consider investing in a VPN like Private Internet Access for added safety and security.
If we've said it once, we've said it a thousand times: the internet is not a safe place. As an educational tool and social connector it is amazing, but for all the cute animals and funny memes, there are also scams lurking around every corner. If you're on the grid, you should know how to protect yourself and your information. One way to do that is with a VPN.
VPNs (virtual private networks) like Private Internet Access allow users to mask their IP address and navigate the internet anonymously. When you use a VPN, websites are blocked from tracking your browsing habits, monitoring activity, or even seeing where you are connecting to the internet from. Private Internet Access also comes with an encryption service that defends against monitoring and a firewall that blocks dangerous connections. If you're in a situation where your internet provider or region has certain websites blocked, a VPN can break through those barriers and welcome you to censorship-free browsing.
You should also be able to spot threats on your own. To help, here are a few scams that are currently trending online.
Kobe Bryant memorabilia
Photo: Michael Wa on Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Following his untimely death in a helicopter accident in California on January 26, 2020, the Better Business Bureau issued a warning for fans of NBA icon Kobe Bryant to not "let their mourning cloud their judgment." The BBB wrote that high-profile celebrity deaths often result in phishing scams, sales of fake memorabilia, and the use of clickbait to exploit people and steal their information. The bureau suggests checking the sender's email address before clicking on anything and hovering over all links first to see where they lead. When possible, internet users should do some homework before buying items and sharing account details.
Particularly around the holidays but also all year round, cute animals are an easy way for scammers to trick people into making themselves vulnerable. The BBB has seen a 37% increase in consumer complaints about puppy scams since 2017, with 16,000 complaints coming in the last three years. The organization says that the figure is likely to be much higher but, according to the Federal Trade Commission, only 10% of victims report crimes. An estimated 60% of those who reported scams never received the pets they purchased.
2020 is the year of the census, a nationwide headcount that happens once every 10 years. While people should definitely be wary of scammers knocking on their front doors, the BBB says that those same precautions need to be exercised online. Be suspicious of anonymous/generic emails, never share your social security number or agree to transfer money, and make sure that if you are directed to a website that it has the official census.gov web address.
Gym memberships and weight-loss supplements
A new year means that a lot of people are considering ways to be healthier or more active. Scammers are aware of this and will use gym memberships, supplements, and other fake offers to capitalize on the trend. The Better Business Bureau's tips for avoiding scams are to research companies before signing up, to thoroughly read the terms of agreement and all the fine print, and to not hesitate to call your credit card company if you suspect you have been the victim of a free-trial scam.
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By using the DoNotPay chatbot, you may be able to quickly file a small-claims case against Equifax for up to $25,000.
Don't get mad—get even.
There is a great deal of outrage directed at Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting agencies in the United States, for its potential negligence in gathering extremely sensitive data (i.e. social security numbers) and not keeping them safe. With upwards of 143 million Americans affected by the hacking, calling it a "massive data breach" still seems like an understatement. The hacking occurred between May and July of this year, with the company announcing the data breach on September 7th.
While it is impossible for any company to truly be hack-proof, Equifax appears to have been particularly lax about their security measures.
To many, "complimentary identity theft protection and credit file monitoring" may seem woefully inadequate. Given the potential lax data security that Equifax employed, you may not feel a sense of trust towards the company.
You may want to sue Equifax.
The legal process, however, is often convoluted and has an expensive barrier to entry (see Lawyer Fees). The DoNotPay chatbot, however, is hoping to change this by streamlining the process for people looking to sue Equifax in small-claims court at the state level. The free bot, created by Stanford student Joshua Browder, allows those affected by the Equifax breach to sue the company for up to $25,000 (depending on the state). As of this writing, the chatbot currently allows users to file in California and New York--with other states being added (according to the website) within 12 hours.
Developer Joshua Browder is not new to using a chatbot to freely help people with an often-Byzantine legal process. The DoNotPay chatbot and Browder gained media attention during the summer for helping citizens in the US and the UK challenge parking tickets, earning Browder the nickname: The Robinhood of the Internet.
Using the DoNotPay chatbot to file a lawsuit against Equifax works by streamlining the necessary legal paperwork one would need. Think of it as Turbotax for filing a lawsuit. While AI has disrupted and simplified many areas of life, the legal profession is still an area ripe for technological assistance. Browder certainly has grand ambitions for the DoNotPay chatbot. Speaking to The Verge, he said:
“I hope that my product will replace lawyers, and, with enough success, bankrupt Equifax.” — Joshua Browder, developer of the DoNotPay chatbot
— Joshua Browder (@jbrowder1) September 13, 2017
Will the DoNotPay Chatbot Work for Suing Equifax?
This is an area that remains to be seen, given the complexity of the American legal system which has different rules that need to be followed for each small-claims state court system. Privacy expert Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, expressed a certain degree of skepticism in an interview with Mashable: "A small error could invalidate whoever's using it, right?"
While there are indeed hurdles to ensure the accuracy of the chatbot, the DoNotPay chatbot clearly provides an outlet for the outrage that people feel with the Equifax data breach—a hacking that impacted people that had absolutely no association with the credit reporting agency. In other words, there were no precautions that a citizen should have done (i.e. complicated and unique passwords) in order to protect their data. The Equifax data breach strikes a chord of helplessness that many of us feel with the safety of our data.
The hope is that ramifications for potentially lax data security—such as lawsuits—can send a strong signal to the many companies holding our sensitive data.
"As long as impunity for corporations and their executives is the norm, data breaches will continue to happen. What should you do? It’s easy: Just make sure to change your name, Social Security number and home address regularly — and don’t go crying if you neglect to do that and suffer the consequences of your actions." — Zeynep Tufekci, "Equifax's Maddening Unaccountability," The New York Times