TORONTO — Ontario’s Consumer and Business Services Minister will meet with his provincial counterparts as well as members of Industry Canada in Quebec City in January to discuss strategies to combat the Internet crimes that are

costing Canadians millions of dollars.

Minister Jim Watson provided an information session on Internet scams Wednesday at Queen’s Park as part of the provincial government’s Consumer Awareness Week. The idea that people can be hoodwinked by e-mails from Nigeria promising unique investment opportunities may sound farfetched, said the minister, but millions of dollars have been drained from Canadian bank accounts. He pointed out that such schemes existed long before the Internet and were perpetrated by phone or regular mail.

Internet criminals have become more sophisticated in recent years by setting up dummy Web sites that look similar to those of major banks, trusted sites like eBay, or even government Web sites. Users are encouraged via e-mail to enter personal and financial information into these sites. The practice, known as phishing, has resulted in monetary theft and in worse cases, identity theft.

“”Your information goes straight into the hands of crooks,”” said Watson. As part of its awareness program this week, the government offered a five-point guideline for safe Internet use:

  • Clear your cache at the end of every session
  • Be wary of requests for personal information
  • Don’t open unfamiliar attachments
  • Only download software from trusted Web sites
  • Unplug your modem after each use

“”Most fraud happens because people are just too trusting,”” said the minister, adding that the most likely targets of phishing schemes are new Canadians and the elderly.

It’s not likely that this type of crime will be stamped out any time soon. Phishing sites are often only up for a few days, said Michael Murphy, president of Symantec Canada. The perpetrators hook a number of unsuspecting users, shut down the site, then move onto the next scheme, which makes it incredibly difficult to catch them. Such crimes are increasing at the rate of 50 per cent a month, he said. Research from the Gartner Group indicates that five per cent of phishing attempts are successful.

“”Sometimes it’s like nailing jelly to a wall trying to track some of these people,”” said Watson.

“”This is certainly a new crime,”” said Det. Supt. Rick Kotwa who heads up the anti-rackets investigation bureau for the Ontario Provincial Police. “”We don’t have a lot of resources designated towards it.””

The criminals often operate out of the country, so a combined effort from multiple law enforcement agencies is necessary, he said. “”It’s a learning curve for us in law enforcement across the globe.””

The penalties for these crimes are steeper in the U.S. than they are in Canada, said Watson. “”I think we have to be tougher and from a global point of view, have stiffer sentences.””

Watson said that the Ontario government is working on new consumer laws for 2005 that would be among the toughest in the world.

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