The last booming business? Internet thieves run a $265 million industry

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Complaints of online ripoffs rose to more than 275,000 in 2008, a 33% increase over 2007, the Internet Crime Complaint Center reported. Victims reported losing $264.6 million -- up from $239.1 million. And, officials said, 2009 is shaping up as even worse.

Officials who prepared the report say the economy is in part to blame, with more people seeking opportunities at the same time more people are trying to take advantage of them -- a "perfect storm" of victim and perpetrator brought together by technology.The FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center operate the IC3.gov web site, which serves as a clearinghouse for complaints about online scams, schemes and fraud. They note that what they see is but "the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to actual number of victims and dollars lost.

Rick Kane, the White Collar Crime Center's research manager, said perhaps 15% of all Internet crime is reported to IC3.

For the first time since the IC3 starting doing annual reports in 2000, the most commonly reported crime is not internet auction fraud. In 2008, merchandise paid for but not delivered accounted for one-third of all complaints, making it the most prevalent Internet crime reported. Auction fraud, on the other hand, accounted for 25% of complaints, followed by credit/debit card fraud, confidence fraud, computer fraud, check fraud, and the Nigerian letter.

For those who do report to IC3, about one in four complaints was referred to a law enforcement agency for investigation. While prosecutions can be difficult -- more complex when a foreign perpetrator is at work -- recovering money is harder still.

The average loss by victims reporting crimes to the IC3 was $931.

Leslie Hoppey, the FBI's acting cyber crimes chief, says awareness by consumers is the best defense. She suggests Internet users visit lookstoogoodtobetrue.com, a public-private venture dedicated to scam prevention.

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