September 20, 2018

KIM | Phish Bait

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In elementary school, I would stare at the ceiling intently, connecting specks to find that one word ingrained in the spongy surface. I would murmur the word “gullible” as slow as I could, and I could almost hear the syllables transform into the round sounds of “orange,” just like what they told me. I believed everything I heard, putting faith in my naive sense of trust. But I’ve learned that trust isn’t and shouldn’t be such an easy concept to adapt.

I believed the person on the other end of the suspicious phone call I never should’ve picked up in the first place. I was in the midst of enjoying my fresh oatmeal in the calm morning, and I could’ve finished my untouched plate of warm scrambled eggs and ripe strawberries. But instead, I picked up the phone, and I believed this mysterious man, as he perfectly sculpted the details of my proposed arrest. The confusing, governmental jargon flooded in through one ear and out the other, and I felt numb. I was emotionally distraught, and I couldn’t roll my head around the idea that someone was using my identity to sell drugs and abandon a cocaine-filled Toyota Corolla in the Southern border of Texas.

I had my suspicions, but the calm voice on the other end assured me that he was calling from the Bath, New York Police Department. After having instructed me to search the phone number online, and after seeing indeed that the number belonged to the police station in Bath, NY, the alarms in my head blared, and I could no longer think. While the man on the phone continued to elaborate and explain, a heated warfare was taking place in my mind: who do I trust? Is this real or is this all just an act?

About an hour and a half later, I found myself holding five Google Play gift cards in my hand at a Seven Eleven. It was at this moment when I practically realized that saying “gullible” slowly would never sound like “orange.” I saved myself from financial disaster, but my personal information, on the other hand, was ultimately out of my control.

Having activated a security freeze and fraud alert on my credit account, I felt confident that I was safe for now. But I was vexed with the realization that they had known my Cornell email address, as well as my father’s name. Did this mean they had access to the personal information of students at Cornell? Can we be sure that our information and even ourselves are in the hands of dependable security?

I never really questioned the security of my personal information, especially not the security regarding the information registered with the university, but now I have my doubts. As hackers get smarter and phishers become dangerously clever, phone numbers can be cloned, your deepest darkest secrets and personal information can be accessed with delicate ease, details can be so elaborately and perfectly formulated and manipulation has never been easier. But the question is, can we catch up?

The whole situation itself was alarming and daunting, but one statement by the Cornell Police especially struck me with dismay and bewilderment. With nonchalance, he informed me that students are a common target for scammers. We’re in our most vulnerable and desperate state, always standing on the edge. It’s definitely not a difficult task for scammers to gently nudge us off that edge and watch us plummet and tumble. Scammers know our weaknesses as college students, executing their manipulative acts through fake job offers, notifications of student debt complications and false arrests.

Incidences of fraud have been drastically increasing, with fraud revenues increasing from 1.32 to 1.47 percent in 2016, according to research done by LexisNexis Risk Solutions. There just simply doesn’t seem to be a sign of improvement in obviating this steadily accelerating issue, seeing that fraud rates are even increasing exponentially within universities.

Now my question is: what is being done about it? The only thing that could be done by the police was to fix the wreckage and wait. There was no way of tracking the scammers nor was there a way to prevent it. There is a certain level of prevention that is being implemented, from Gmail’s bright yellow box warning you of an outside email address to FBI and Police scam warnings. However, the increasing fraud rates seem to reflect a lack of an effect of these methods.

It disturbs me to see many of my friends and even my parents receive strange phone calls and fraudulent emails on a nearly daily basis. We’ve learned to ignore them, but desperate times may call for desperate measures, and scammers may find the perfect bait to lure you in. They’ll worm into your brain, find your weakest point and control you like a floppy puppet.

I’m still frustrated because my beautiful breakfast had gone to waste and I had missed my lecture that day, but by the end of it, I definitely know that there’s nothing spelled out on the ceiling, arrest warrants are never given by phone and saying the word “gullible” real slow really just makes you an artistic exhibition of ridiculous irony.

Alexia Kim is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. Who, What, Where, Why? runs every other Friday this semester. She can be reached at alexiakim@cornellsun.com.