Doug Fodeman decided to start a website fighting internet scams from his North Shore home over a decade ago when a 25-year-old coworker came to his office in tears.
Fodeman says his colleague was browsing on her phone when she landed on a fake tech support website. She inadvertently gave control of her phone to scammers who quickly took hold of her laptop as well. The interlopers could listen to her cellphone conversations, place calls through her phone and intercept her texts — eventually stealing her identity with the use of personal and credit card information.
Fodeman was well aware of the risks of scams. At the time, he was the director of technology at a school in Manchester, helping protect students and administrators from scams. He also taught an internet literacy class for about 25 years, encouraging safe, healthy and age-appropriate use of technology.
He helped his colleague as best he could, taking about a week to get her digital life back in order.
But Fodeman wanted to do more to keep others from falling victim to these common but terrifying and invasive attacks — so he created a website and newsletter with a neighbor called The Daily Scam.
“I do it because I know that it helps and kindness matters,” Fodeman told GBH News during a recent interview in his home office, covered with pictures of friends and family. “Being kind to people, treating them with respect. And that’s the last thing that scammers do. It’s the opposite of what they do.”
For years, the newsletter held on to less than 1,000 subscribers. But recently, Fodeman and his partner David Deutsch have seen their subscriber numbers balloon. In September 2021, they started collaborating with ScamAdviser, a website that helps users identify if a website is legitimate. Suddenly, with ScamAdviser’s subscriber list, their numbers jumped to about 125,000 — and in the two years since, it’s grown to 158,000.
Readers flocked to the list as more and more people have fallen victim to scams. Last year, Americans lost almost $8.8 billion to scammers. That’s a 30% increase from 2021, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Experts say The Daily Scam stands out as a tool to combat online fraud because it is designed for the general public at a time when education about internet safety is sorely lacking.
“There is no mandatory class that people need to take before they can go on the internet — there's no driving license that you need to take, no exams,” said Gianluca Stringhini, a professor at Boston University and expert on cybercrime scams. “Having a more pervasive education campaign would help.”
With the holidays approaching, Fodeman warns readers to be especially careful. Cybercriminals routinely jump on major holidays or national events, he says, including the window of opportunity for Medicare recipients to change plans, or Veterans Day shopping deals. A reader recently sent Fodeman a Christmas-themed scam from “Santa’s Letter Factory,” advertising a personalized letter from Santa Claus. The links in the email would send the user to a server in India and a site loaded with malware.
“If they can trick you into clicking a link to install software to take over your computer, there’s literally a dozen different ways and directions they can go with it,” Fodeman says. “Cybercriminals are always looking for an in, and they’re so clever.”
The website covers the gamut of online fraud — from Zimbabwe romance scammers to federal tax cons over the phone. Topics include scams related to dating and sex, jobs and hiring and tech support. Readers send Fodeman suspicious texts or emails they receive, and the newsletter will often recount the story from start to finish, pointing out the inconsistencies and red flags from scammers along the way.
“We can't come up with some kind of standards that we demand of companies or the people that produce software browsers about protecting our citizens online in this digital age?”Doug Fodeman, co-director of The Daily Scam
Fodeman stays on top of new scams because readers are constantly sending them to him, asking to verify or warn others about the content.
Anita Wallace-Odom of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, says she found The Daily Scam after speaking with a man she met on a dating app that refused to meet in-person. After about three months she searched his name online, found a link to the website and contacted Fodeman. Once Wallace-Odom realized she was dealing with a scammer, she spent a month working with Fodeman to track him down.
“With Doug's help, we tricked the guy into clicking on a link and it actually put Doug within 24 feet of that guy’s computer,” she said.
The computer was in Harare, Zimbabwe. Fodeman reached out to the local police, but doesn’t know if they took action.
A recent post on The Daily Scam details a less fortunate outcome. A 46-year-old woman named Maggie matched with a 37-year-old man on the dating app Hinge. They never met in person and only communicated via phone calls or text. Maggie, who asked to keep her identity hidden, told The Daily Scam that as their commitment grew, the man began asking for money. Within months, Maggie had wired him about $49,000. (Fodeman’s advice: Take extreme caution if someone you meet online is unable to video chat or needs financial help.)
Sarah Perlman, a consumer rights attorney for the nonprofit Greater Boston Legal Services, says anybody with an online presence, including even just an email address, can fall victim to online fraud.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, scams have surged as people spend more time online. In Greater Boston, Perlman says, rental scams are a particular problem. The region is an ideal atmosphere for scammers, she said, as a tight rental market puts added pressure on renters to offer a security deposit on a property sometimes from afar.
“There's pictures, there's contact information. It seems legitimate,” she said. But the scam is revealed after would-be renters send a security deposit. “What ends up happening is that the pictures are stolen from another listing and the person just disappears.”
Fodeman first came up with the website while he was teaching classes on internet literacy. He would often walk across the yard and poke his head over the fence to brainstorm with his neighbor David Deutsch, who became his co-director.
Deutsch says he was interested because his son nearly fell for a rental scam during that time. His mother was also defrauded out of thousands of dollars in an unrelated con: She was having problems with her computer, he said, and received an email from scammers who said they could fix it if she sent them money.
“Everybody just believes in everybody,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Come on, Ma, really?’ ... So, Doug and I said, ‘Why don’t we do something about this?’”
Now retired from working at the Brookwood School in Manchester, Fodeman says he spends 15 to 20 hours a week working on the website.
He offers practical tips to protect information online, including finding easy-to-remember tricks to create a collection of strong, unique passwords. If an email password gets compromised, for example, then a scammer won’t also have access to online bank accounts. He urges readers to check the email addresses of organizations or people who write them to see if there is anything suspicious.
Fodeman is particularly frustrated by what he sees as the lack of government oversight to protect people from scammers.
“We have laws about gun safety, about seat belts, about child-proof covers on prescription medicine,” he said. “We can’t come up with some kind of standards that we demand of companies or the people that produce software browsers about protecting our citizens online in this digital age?”
A lot of his frustration is focused on a nonprofit whose role is to make sure the internet runs smoothly, known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The organization was created in 1998 to keep the internet secure and manage web addresses — essentially allowing “computers on the Internet to find one another,” as the organization’s website explains. It projects $164 million in costs for the current fiscal year.
Fodeman says that ICANN should do more to protect the public from scammers. Some registrars — businesses that sell domain names — that are accredited by ICANN have been sued for allowing people to register misleading names. Scammers often use deceptive domain names, such as facebo0k-login.com, to trick people into clicking on bad links.
“These domains are routinely malicious mimics that are used for phishing the public or for scamming people in all kinds of ways because they want people to think that they are related to the legitimate business,” Fodeman said. “This is a no-brainer. These should not be sold. There should be a higher standard set by ICANN and met by registrars.”
John Crain, senior vice president and chief technology officer at ICANN, says they are making progress. New contracts for ICANN-accredited registrars and registries are expected to be implemented next year, he says, which will hold registrars to higher standards with stronger protections against misleading domain names.
"If [the registrars] were given evidence that a name was being used for domain name system abuse — say, phishing — they would be expected to remedy that. And that would probably take the shape of suspending the name. It could also be completely withdrawing the name,'' he said. "That is left to them to figure out how to best do that because the abuse and the cyber criminality that use domain names change all the time."
The last updates to ICANN's registrar contracts in regard to domain name abuse was in 2013. Fodeman remains skeptical of the changes.
“Too little, too late. Are you kidding me?” says Fodeman. “It is an important step to happen. It's necessary. However, there are multiple ways and speed at which this policy change can be implemented. Given their history, given how poorly they actually have put up guardrails for the consumers using the internet, I have little confidence that they're going to do it quickly or they're going to do it well.”
In the meantime, Fodeman plans to continue to warn people about scammers. Despite The Daily Scam’s growing popularity, Fodeman says it’s far from profitable. Over the course of the past 11 years, he says he and his partner have brought in about $3,000 through donations and ads — far less than the cost to run the website.
His work is more motivated by making a difference. Now 68 years old, he says he can’t imagine a time when he’s not trying to help people from being exploited.
What would stop him?
“Five letters: D-E-A-T-H. When I die, I imagine, either David will take it over or someone will take it over,” he said. “God knows what’ll happen. But till forever. Till I can’t.”