The American Reporter
St. Simons Island, Ga.
May 9, 2006
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- It didn't start in the computer world; it was a television commercial asking the question: "Is it real, or is it Memorex?" Could their cassette tapes so capture the sound of a live performance that the listener could not tell the difference? It was only a sales slogan but now it's part of American short-speak.
Once we were able to say with confidence, "I know a phony when I see it," and we'd know exactly what we were all talking about. Now we ponder that while we check into it a little further. There's another example of a short way to jump to the long story. This would be the common use of the word "turf" among newspaper editors. Letters to the editor, a popular feature in most dailies, is read with interest born of wanting to know what your neighbors are thinking.
These letters are how we learn what's on the minds of, say, the working class - so called "the grassroots" of our society. Often, however, major rights groups, will create a letter espousing their causes - perhaps animal rights, environmental protection rights, and the like.
No problem if individuals write, but when one letter is mass-produced, with phony addresses added at the bottom, sent to every editor in the country, that's when we have "turf." Get it? Artificial grass is known as Astroturf. When editors compare notes, they know they're being used - legitimate grassroots writers don't usually have an (800) phone number; the turf letters are scrapped.
In the last year or so, a new word found it's way into our jargon: "phishing." This is mail, whether electronic or postal, but nevertheless, usually an inquiry about a credit account. The last four digits of your charge account number is typed in appropriately with asterisks for those missing. You are then asked to verify "for our records" by filling in the first 12 numbers. Whoops! Now they have you dangling on the end of their line on this phishing trip.
Luckily, we've become an enlightened society. We see them coming. Nevertheless, yesterday, I got an e-mail in the perfect format of one of my banking accounts. This was one of those Memorex moments. I studied every line, checked background color, fonts used, everything. It was perfect. But the content was verifying a purchase I did not make in Juarez, Mexico. The retail address was an electronic store and the price was $279.00.
That was so real a communication my heart pounded, my breathing became labored, my eyes widened as I stared at the words. I contacted the bank, the credit card company, and they each had no record of any such transaction. However, they each wanted me to forward the letter to their "spoof" department.
They appreciated my call, of course, but tossed the whole thing aside with, "Oh, they're just phishing." The only thing that can be done is to shut down their server, and they will do just that. They further assured me the only thing I would have discovered in searching the letter for clues to counterfeiting would be "Dear Pay Pal Member." They always use a member's name, never just Dear Member.
Will certain people ever tire of trying to get around the system? The time and energy expended in dubious or fraudulent pursuits is usually twice as much as taking the old faithful straight and narrow paths. I once heard of a counterfeiter who was so good at making silver half dollars, each one etched by hand with diligent attention to detail, that during the period of his greatest productivity he could make one a day.
I'm don't mean to say "only" one-a-day as if that's cheap change; what he created was very, very special. But, he was "only" earning 50 cents a day! He could have been top engraver at the Treasury Dept. but he preferred slipping his coins past the experts. Every half dollar was ill-gotten gain and he relished in it. He was caught, arrested and went to jail, end of story. Not a big story; just another glimpse at the human condition.
Probably a forger with wider notoriety because of a movie made about his life of crime, "Catch Me if you Can," is Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. He really made a name for himself and then became part of the system he tried to beat. Finally caught after forging checks totaling $4,000,000, embezzling funds and appropriating secure deeds and documents, he was caught by Joe Shea of the FBI and spent four years in prison.
After his release he turned to his captors and became a consultant to the FBI, working with them and lecturing at the FBI Academy, consulted at more than 13,000 corporations and financial agencies and designed his own fraud prevention program. According to Abagnale, it is rare for stolen goods to be recovered and for the fraud to be detected and punished. He suggests prevention as the best course to take. This is from a man exemplifying "it takes one to know one."
So, I guess I'm just a little "phish" hardly worth hooking in the world's big ocean of suckers, but a line was tossed. Although they tried, the scavengers didn't reel me in. Oh, I saw the bait, it was good, and I almost nibbled, but there have been enough signals reaching consumers that I am wary.
Yet I still worry about that little old lady from Pasadena, the one in tennis shoes, the one used as a prime example of the grassroots community, I just know she'd want to do her civic duty and fill in all the blanks for those nice people who misplaced her numbers.