Earlier this month, a vulnerability in the popular messaging service WhatsApp was discovered, which allowed hackers to install spyware though a voice call. This illicit software was capable of accessing calls, texts, and other data; even activating the phone’s microphone and camera. WhatsApp’s owner, Facebook, released an update in response, but it was already too late for some.

The significant rise in Internet and social media use around the world has enabled increased connectivity, collaboration, and convenience for growing numbers of users. At the same time however, all of us potentially face an increased risk of online fraud.

Online fraud and scams can target anyone, regardless of age, gender, or location. According to a report published by the Federal Trade Commission, the millennial generation are more vulnerable to online deception than seniors, as surprising as it may seem. The research finds that 40 per cent of adults aged 20-29 who have reported fraud ended up losing money in a fraud case.

At a speech in Athens in 2015, Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke of the risks that come with using information technologies, saying, “the danger in an age of mass media is that information also can be misused to manipulate the public.” Hazar Imam went on to say that “our technologies alone will not save us. But neither need they ruin us. It is not the power of our tools, but how we use them that will determine our future.”

Internet fraud is a type of deception which uses online platforms to trick victims out of money, property, or inheritance. It differentiates from theft, as the victim voluntarily provides information to the perpetrator. When we access the Internet, whether at home on desktops or tablets, or when out and about on smartphones, we may be at risk of fraudulent activity, which can present itself in a number of different ways. Some examples include:

  • Phishing scams: Phishing is the name given to cybercriminals’ attempts to lure individuals into giving them sensitive information or money. These are evolving, and are generally where an email is received with a link that, if clicked, can make your information and online activity vulnerable. These can come in a number of different types of emails including greeting cards, lottery winning notifications, bank loan scams, or invoices.
  • Advanced fee fraud: These can prey on your emotions and generally ask for your assistance in retrieving a (non-existent) large sum of money by paying a relatively small amount of money. This is one example of what have become quite common ‘make money fast’ scams.
  • Social media scams: Many people are turning online to look for, and communicate with new friends. This has given rise to a new type of deception which targets individuals who are seeking connection and preys on emotions and possible vulnerability. These scams tend to start on social media or online dating sites, and once an emotional connection has been established, a request for assistance or money is made. Once such a request has been fulfilled, the communication may end, or additional funds may be requested.
  • Fake software fraud: These scams often take the form of a pop-up on your computer stating that it has, for example, been infected by a virus. Ironically, by clicking, your device may become infected with a virus, or fall victim to malware, which illegally tracks your online activity.
  • Illegitimate products or services: In addition to the ‘fake’ series of scam sites, there are also fake shopping sites, where seemingly genuine offers are fake. Fraudsters also try to encourage risky investments, promote fake charities, and sell counterfeit tickets to large events.
  • Online blackmail: Using data from large scale data hacks, fraudsters claim to know your online details and passwords, and then suggest they have access to sensitive information. To stop the release of information, they will ask to be compensated.

Fraud victims are also often let down by inconsistent policing. According to the BBC, online fraud cases are not prioritised by the authorities, who have a host of supposedly more serious crimes to deal with. This leaves open the potential for psychological and emotional damage to victims; some have reported losing their entire life savings.

With the ever increasing number of online scams impacting lives, there are a number of steps we can take to mitigate risk and try to ensure we are protected from unwelcome access to our data and funds:

  • Trust your instincts: If something sounds too good to be true, research further and reach out to trusted sources that may be able to assist. Be wary about sharing personal information and contact details with strangers.
  • Do your research: If you receive an unexpected email, do not click on any links, and use online resources to look into the sender further. Do not part with money unless you are comfortable doing so. If the message is from someone you know – contact that person via another channel to confirm.
  • Undertake due diligence: If you receive contact from your bank or an organisation you trust, contact them directly, not via the email sent, to check the contact is genuine. Retrieve contact details from a trusted source, such as the organisation’s official website.
  • Be vigilant: Use strong passwords, and change them often. When logging onto public WiFi networks, you may be more at risk of data breaches. Be mindful of this, and of the activities you undertake when using these networks.
  • Contact appropriate authorities: If you have experienced fraud or are being harassed because you are not giving someone what they want, reach out for assistance.
  • Share your stories: The more people who know about online fraud, the better equipped we will all be to deal with them.