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By Robert Bell, John Jung, Louis Zacharilla: Intelligent Communities are those which have - whether through crisis or foresight - come to understand the enormous challenges of the Broadband Economy, and have taken conscious steps to create an economy capable of prospering in it. They are not necessarily big cities or famous technology hubs. They are located in developing nations as well as industrialized ones, suburbs as well as cities, the hinterland as well as the coast.

The Solution to Online Fraud

June 30, 2009 By

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It started when an unusual package crossed my desk the other day. Arriving by express mail, it contained a set of checks in the name of an organization I manage.  They were made out to various individuals I had never heard of, in amounts ranging from a few hundred dollars to many thousands.  The organization's name and address were correct, as was the bank and its routing number. But it was not a normal pre-printed business check.  Everything on it had been printed on the same low-quality, dot-matrix printer.  And the account number was for an account that had been closed over a year before - because of fraud.

As I looked at the checks, I thought, this bad guy gives the word "stupid" a whole new meaning.  Sending me bad checks for my signature, expecting that I would sign them and mail them to the recipients without giving it a thought?  I alerted the bank and sent them the checks and the envelope, which believe it or not had a return address.

Then my phone began to ring.  First it was a man in Cedar Rapids, Iowa who had sold something on E-Bay and received a similar check in payment.  It looked odd to him, so he called to verify.  (The perpetrator included the correct phone number for some reason.)  Fortunately, he had not shipped the goods yet, so no harm done.   Another call came an hour later from a liquor store in Atlanta, Georgia.  A woman had tried to cash another one of these checks, and the clerk was suspicious enough to contact me.  He told me that, according to the woman, it was a paycheck she had received for online work.

There were more calls over the next couple of days, all with similar stories, then nothing.  Perhaps the perpetrator has given up on this particular dodge, or may just have set it aside for a while to let things cool down.  Or maybe the bank information has been sold on to someone else, probably online, together with thousands of other accounts.

The Solution to Online Fraud.jpg There is a lot of concern in some circles about trust on the Web.  I have read respected thinkers who insist that it is a make-or-break issue: if we cannot create some kind of "trusted space" on the Web, where we can be sure that people are who they say they are and keep their promises, then e-commerce is doomed.  In their view, the Internet is just too dangerous a place for normal people wander about on their own.

To which I can only say: what planet do you live on?  Here on planet Earth, there is no such trusted space, where all people are who they claim to be and can be counted to keep their promises.  Not in the physical world, at least, and certainly not in the digital one.

Check fraud is as old as commercial checking, though this perpetrator was not exactly Frank Abagnale Jr. in that movie, Catch Me If You Can.  In the first case, he or she tried to cheat an E-Bay seller.  The seller was savvy in the ways of commerce and the Web, and made the right decision.  In the second case, it seemed to be about getting a person to perform work of some kind and then paying for it with a bad check.  The online "employee" believed what she was told, presumably did the work, whatever it was, and was cheated out of payment.  I would guess that she is a new user of the Web, who still believes - in the words of a friend of mine - that if it's on the Internet, it must be true.  Or at least, she used to believe it.

There's no question that the anonymity of the Web makes things a bit easier for the bad guys.  The ability to approach millions of potential victims a day by email does extend their reach.  But the virtual world plays essentially by the same rules as the physical world.   The solution to online fraud isn't better software.  It's better "wetware," that term for the human beings who use the software.

The work of digital inclusion - helping those who are outside the digital economy to join it - usually focuses on providing technology, making it affordable and training people to use it.  But it also needs to focus on using it sensibly, with realistic expectations.  So to all new users out there: the good news is that the broadband Web can open great vistas of knowledge, opportunity and connection to others.  The bad news is that on the other end of the circuit are the same old human beings you deal with every day.  So the next time your email lights up with a promise that you can Make Good Money Working From Home Just a Few Hours a Week!, it will pay you to consider the motives of the person on the other end of the line. 

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About the Intelligent Community Forum
The Intelligent Community Forum is a think tank that studies the economic and social development of the 21st Century community. Whether in industrialized or developing nations, communities are challenged to create prosperity, stability and cultural meaning in a world where jobs, investment and knowledge increasingly depend on advances in communications. For the 21st Century community, connectivity is a double-edge sword: threatening established ways of life on the one hand, and offering powerful new tools to build prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economies on the other. ICF seeks to share the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities in adapting to the demands of the Broadband Economy, in order to help communities everywhere find sustainable renewal and growth. More information can be found at

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.

John Jung
ICF co-founder John G. Jung originated the Intelligent Community concept and continues to serve as the Forum's leading visionary. Formerly President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance and Calgary Economic Development Authority, he is a registered professional urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. He leads regular international business missions to US, European, Asian, Indian and Australian cities, and originated the ICF Immersion Lab program. John is a regular speaker at universities and conferences and serves as an advisor to regional and national leaders on Intelligent Community development. The author of numerous articles in planning and economic development journals, he has received global and Toronto-based awards for his work in collaboration and strategic development and sits on numerous task forces and international advisory boards.

Louis Zacharilla
ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla is the creator and presenter of the annual Smart21, Top Seven and Intelligent Community Awards and oversees ICF's media communications and development programs. He is a frequent keynote and motivational speaker and panelist, addressing audiences of tech, academic and community leaders around the world, and writes extensively for publications including American City & County, Continental Airline's in-flight magazine and Municipal World. His frequent appearances in the electronic media have included both television and radio in South Korea, China and Canada. He has served as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York and is a Guest Lecturer at Polytechnic University's Distinguished Speaker Series. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Notre Dame.