Joe Lavin

June 7, 2005

Wachovia: We’re Much More than Just Phony E-Mails!

Wachovia Bank is apparently the fourth largest bank in the United States, but I wouldn't know who the hell they were if not for Internet phishing. Every other day, it seems that I get a "request" from "Wachovia" asking me to "update my account information." Much to the disappointment of "Yuri" in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, I have yet to do any updating of my non-existent Wachovia account, but I'll be sure to send him my social security number, waist size, and mother's maiden name any day now.

Because of phishing, I actually hear from Wachovia about ten times as much as I hear from any of the banks with which I do hold accounts. On one hand, it's unfortunate for Wachovia that I only know about them from phony e-mails, but I suppose there is a bright side. Phishing has at least increased their brand awareness. I now know that Wachovia is a bank, whereas before from the name alone I would have guessed that they manufactured industrial faucets.

Washington Mutual is another bank I know only from phishing, though to their credit at least they sound like a bank. I receive so many e-mails from Washington Mutual that I was actually compelled to visit their web site last month just to see if they are a real bank. It turns out that they are, and so again phishing has helped with a bank's marketing. If not for that fake e-mail, I would have never visited their web site.

Paris Hilton has already reinforced the notion that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but perhaps these banks could be another test case. (Come to think of it, many people first learned of Paris Hilton through their inboxes too.) I wonder if this could be a new way for Hollywood to increase publicity for those they are trying to turn into stars. "Colin Farrell? Yeah, I remember him. He's the guy from my inbox asking for my social security number. Really? He has a new movie out?" At the very least, all this has probably helped CD sales for the band Phish.

The Internet fraud market does seem to be changing lately. It used to be that AOL, Paypal, and eBay were the major victims, but now I seem to get most phishing e-mails from banks and credit card companies. This is probably a better strategy. If your bank's name happens to appear on a scam e-mail, it's tough not to look at it for at least a few seconds.

Even the famous Nigerian 401 schemes are gradually changing. Previously, the widow of some African dictator would simply write to you (Yes, you!) asking for help getting 21 gazillion dollars out of her country by funneling it through your bank account. Yes, your bank account, the very same one that previously set the world record for most usages of overdraft protection in a single month, would suddenly be infused with 21 gazillion dollars. Does anyone fall for these? Just to see what would happen, I've always been tempted to respond: "Dear Ms. Sese-Seko, it has come to our attention that your Wachovia account may have been compromised. Please update your account records…"

Of course, these schemes are no longer just for ousted foreign despots anymore. They can come from just about anyone. My favorite came recently from an alleged Enron lawyer who was trying to smuggle millions of dollars from a secret bank account so that the U.S. government wouldn't be able to seize the funds. You know, I always wondered who could possibly believe that some widow from Africa would be involved in such an elaborate scheme? But Ken Lay? Yeah, I can buy that.

Despite all the variations, the scams do keep coming, and so people somewhere must be falling for them. I still don't understand how. Why would anyone be stupid enough to give out personal information to a stranger? On second thought, there are times when it might be necessary. For instance, Paris Hilton just e-mailed. She's updating her address book and needs my social security number, waist size, and mother's maiden name.

©2005 Joe Lavin

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