Would you trust an email that came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? Even as someone who spends most of her week covering security threats like these, even I would still have to say: Probably. That trust, according to security experts from Palo Alto Networks, will only cost you about $0.16.
A study from the company revealed that a Chinese e-commerce website can give you a stolen email address from MIT, along with 16 other major-league U.S. universities. Yeah, that's right. $0.16 for an email address straight from school that's training our future robot-bosses.
Crazy, right? Well, what's even crazier is that, according to one of the report's authors Claud Xiao, most of these email addresses are still active.
He bought an email address to test whether or not the website was for real. Here's what happened, according to the report:
One of sellers suggested to us, "to take all necessary actions to avoid being found by the student" including not changing the password and deleting newly sent or received mail. A student might notice their account receiving emails indicating the address had been used to sign up for new services.
The least the hackers could do is wait until the student graduates before stealing their email. I mean, come on. If an MIT email address only costs you about $.16, I'm sure you're thinking about what else hackers and their clients could be doing to trick you into falling for a scam.
As a full-time observer of the rise of the cyber criminal, I know of two free-to-cheap options that anyone can use to hide their identity.
All a scammer needs to almost completely protect himself or herself from prosecution is to get their hands on a throwaway phone number. While they might have relied on pay phones in the past, all a hacker needs to make calls to anywhere around the U.S. is a free phone number with Google Voice.
Oh, and Google Voice assigns local area codes based on the user's IP address. All a hacker has to do is use a proxy server and they're able to pretend that they live anywhere in the United States.
Note: Google Voice and other VOIP phone solutions aren't just for criminals. They're often the cheapest way to make international calls.
Even scarier is combining that with powerful voice modulation software that you can get for free online. Voice modulation changes the pitch of your voice. Letting scammers fake their age and gender while also making voice identification impossible.
With all of that said, wanting to use a throwaway phone number doesn't mean that you're a hacker. In fact, it's probably the safest way to sell or buy stuff on sites like Craigslist. You can also check out my three safest ways to protect your phone number from spammers.
One of the most dangerous ways to fake your identity online, and one that ruined Georgia resident Gene Cooley's life, is simply hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet. Cooley, a hair stylist, had fake gossip made up about him on Topix, a small town discussion forum.
Topix doesn't require any kind of identity verification. The rumors posted on Topix ranged from laziness to pedophilia appeared to come from different users. It turns out that all of the posts were actually only coming from one woman - Sybil Belew.
Cooley claimed that he didn't even know who the woman was. After taking Belew to civil court, the state agreed and found her guilty of libel charges.
These stories lead up to one basic point that everyone on the Web needs to know: It's easier to be a criminal if you don't have to wear a heist-movie ski mask while you do it.
Don't take my word for it, just check out all of my coverage of the cyber-bullying phenomenon.
Just because someone sends you an email from MIT doesn't mean that they know how to build a robot. Phone calls from a local area codes might not be from a long-lost brother. Anonymous accusations of small-town pedophilia might be coming from a liar.
These scams would call for a high-level confidence man in most circumstances. Online, however, all you need to find the resources to steal money, fake credentials or ruin lives is the right combination of Google keywords.