Lt. Jeffrey Postell, shown at last month’s Job Opportunities Fair, says students and staff alike need to be on guard against technology scams. (Caitlin Cunningham)

Guarding against tech scams

Boston College Police, ITS offer practical advice on how to detect and avoid scams online

The email promised the Boston College student a great opportunity: a paid internship. But the offer made him suspicious.

For one thing, although the sender was supposedly a BC faculty member, the message came via, not a address. What’s more, the supposed internship would involve the graduate student buying a gift card as part of the alleged professor’s work.

What the bogus email’s author didn’t know was that the graduate student in question happened to be Boston College Police Lt. Jeffrey Postell, who is something of an expert on scams.

Postell contacted the faculty member referenced in the email, and was relieved to learn he had already been in touch with the University’s Information Technology Services about the message attributed to him.

It was a happy outcome, but the episode was only the latest in a never-ending, universal saga: As long as there have been computer users, there have been computer abusers who concoct ways to trick them into sharing personal or financial information—“phishing,” as it’s called. And it falls to people like Postell and his BC Police colleagues, as well as ITS staffers, who have to keep up with the scammers and make sure the University community is as informed as possible about phishing and other dangers.

“It’s certainly not getting any easier,” said Postell. “Obviously, computer-related technology continues to grow more sophisticated, which means that scammers who use it for criminal purposes are upping their game. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us are helpless.”

Instances of phishing and other computer scams typically increase around the start of a new academic year, according to Postell. Some students are on their own for the first time, and therefore may be less aware of such risks, he explained, but faculty and staff are by no means immune, either.

“The best thing to do—with any kind of scam—is to slow down and take a breath.
Lt. Jeffrey Postell, Boston College Police

Another typical scam reported to BCPD are phone calls from someone posing as a BC police officer or other law enforcement professional—or a government official or lawyer—who claims that a family member or friend of the intended target has been arrested or detained and needs bail money (alleged offenses may range from drug possession to outstanding traffic citations to unpaid taxes).

“We will never do that,” said Postell. “BCPD doesn’t call to solicit money from any community members. Nor does any police department.”

What makes such scams appear so unnervingly legitimate is that defrauders may use actual names and can simulate email accounts or phone numbers to make it seem as if they’re the person they claim to be.

“Obviously, those kinds of calls can be very upsetting,” said Postell. “The best thing to do—with any kind of scam—is to slow down and take a breath. Then call into the police department and ask for the duty officer or the officer who supposedly called you, and describe the call you just received. That way you can put your mind at ease and also get an investigation started.”

For scams such as the “paid student internship,” which tout a supposed academic, professional, or financial opportunity, Postell said the old maxim holds true: “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

“If someone is asking you for, say, your Social Security number—or other personal and financial information—that should be a red flag,” he said. “We don’t want to scare anyone: We just want people to be aware, because the first line of defense with scams is at the user level.”  

 Vice President for Information Technology Michael Bourque, who lauded Postell and his BCPD colleagues’ work against scams, added that “many technology crimes—from small swindles to very large breaches—often start with a very subtle and seemingly innocent inducement.  Many times, the scams involve multiple steps and ramp up after some level of credibility has been established by the scammer. I think Lt. Postell’s advice about slowing down, taking a breath, and remembering that ‘If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ is definitely wise.”