On Watch

The Cost of Free Stuff

Posted: Mar 25, 2013 12:21 PM ET Last Updated: Mar 25, 2013 12:21 PM ET

Sometimes, a guilty conscience can get you in more trouble than you were in to begin with.

Take this recent warning from Nova Scotia RCMP.

Four people in Pictou County, and one in Amherst received an official-looking notice from the RCMP. They had apparently illegally down-loaded music or movies and were being fined $100.

The notices had either the RCMP logo at the top, or an image of a police car.

First of all, I have never come across a police agency that uses a picture of one of its cars in its letterhead. Maybe if NASCAR has a police force, it might. But the RCMP do not. That should have been the recipients' first clue.

"The scammers are using our logo to make you feel that this is a very legitimate email," RCMP Sgt. Al LeBlanc said. "And obviously, as you know, the RCMP does not function in this manner."

But here's where the guilty conscience comes in; they get the notice, they know they've been downloading stuff without paying for it, and they think they're caught.

Most people I know download free stuff from the internet. A lot of people seem to think that paying for any internet content is just wrong. I don't want to get into that debate here. After all, it's hard to feel sorry for Beyonce or Steven Spielberg as they look down on the rest of us from high atop their piles of money. At the same time, taking her songs or his movies without paying for them is considered stealing in some circles.

No matter which side of the debate you're on, if you get an official-looking warning, you may be tempted to pay the fine to make the problem go away.

The warnings that have been popping up in northern Nova Scotia instruct the recipeient to use U-Cash to pay the fine. Where the money goes once you pay it is anybody's guess. But the scammers aren't done there. In at least one case, opening the email froze the recipeient's computer. They had to go to a local computer store to get it fixed. "We believe this is a virus as well as a scam," Sgt. LeBlanc said. "so we want people to be very cautious about this."

This is a fairly new type of online threat. It has a name. Scareware. Free music and movies aren't the only things people are accused of downloading illegally. Some people have also received official-looking notices, accusing them of downloading child pornography. This tactic prompted the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre to issue a warning just last month. Unlike the debate over "free" movies and music, there is no question about the appropriateness of accessing child pornography. And every time the Internet Child Exploitation or ICE unit announces new charges, it demonstrates that police can track such online activity.

Simply being accused of the crime is enough to prompt some people to try to pay the fine, even if they've done nothing wrong. The problem is, they're not paying a fine. They're paying criminals. And if their computers are infected -- as happened in at least one case in Pictou -- there's no telling what other jeopardy they could be opening themselves up to.

Sometimes, free stuff can be very costly.

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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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