FBI cracks down on Internet fraud

Scams cheated consumers out of £80m

A major crackdown on Web-based fraud has broken up pyramid schemes, phoney "Beanie Baby" auctions and other Internet scams that had cheated 56,000 people out of more than $117m (about £80m), US law enforcers said on Wednesday.

A total of 88 people have been charged and 62 arrested in the operation code-named "Cyber Loss" involving 61 separate federal, state and local investigations, the FBI and Justice Department announced.

The federal and state criminal charges range from fraud by wire to mail fraud, bank fraud, money laundering and intellectual property rights violations, senior officials told a news conference at FBI headquarters.

Over the past 10 days, law enforcers from California to New York executed search warrants, unsealed indictments and entered guilty pleas in a crackdown "of unprecedented scope against Internet fraud," Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said.

The alleged scams included online auctions of such things as Beanie Baby dolls and computer games that fleeced 200 people out of a total of $20,000 without delivering, FBI officials said.

On the high end of alleged damages was a San Diego, California-based operation, where 39 people were indicted for taking in as much as $50m over three years for selling undelivered Internet services and sham high-tech investments, said Ruben Garcia, assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigation division.

Another alleged scam cheated 48,000 people out of $295 apiece to set up nonexistent electronic "stores" in an online mall for a $14m haul, he said.

Efforts were under way to return the ill-gotten gains to the victims, law enforcement officials said.

The San Diego-based operation involved offshore accounts set up in Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, John Rose, director of the Internal Revenue Service's national operations division, told Reuters.

Operation Cyber Loss was sparked by the Internet Fraud Complaint Centre, a year-old, Fairmont, West Virginia-based clearing house run by the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Centre, which bring together about 1,000 state and local law enforcers and regulators.

Attorney General John Ashcroft urged victims of Web fraud to submit details of their cases to the complaint centre at www.ifccfbi.gov.

"Just as neighbourhood watch programs keep watch over their neighbourhoods and report suspicious activity to law enforcement, Internet users now have a 'cyber community watch' program," he said in a written statement.

The centre said auction fraud accounted for 64 percent of the 36,000 complaints it has received since it went online last 8 May, by far the largest chunk. But a survey by the centre released at the news conference said more than 1.3m transactions were taking place daily on Internet auction sites with fewer than 1 percent reported to be fraudulent.

Of all alleged Internet auction fraud reported to the complaint center, 84 percent of the subjects were listed as individuals and 16 percent as businesses, the survey showed.

Separately, the Federal Trade Commission told Congress Wednesday that it had logged more than 25,000 Internet fraud complaints in its "Consumer Sentinel" database last year, roughly 26 percent of all complaints logged, up from fewer than 1,000 in 1997.

"The need and challenge is to act quickly to stem this trend while the online marketplace is still young," Eileen Harrington of the Bureau of Consumer Protection told the House Energy subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection.

See also: ZDNet UK's Net Crime News Section.

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