It's called "phishing" because the crooks cast their net randomly. Their targets usually receive an e-mail that looks as if it's from a legitimate financial institution -- like a bank.
The e-mail claims the victim's account was temporarily closed because it was compromised. To reactive it, the recipient is asked to return social security, credit card or bank account numbers via the Internet. John Cauthen of the F-B-I in Sacramento says the information gives the culprits a number of options.
"They may actually visit the bank account and try to move money. They may try to assume the identity and open other accounts or create false accounts and get loans in the names of the victims."
One organization that keeps track of "phishing" crimes reports the number nationwide tripled from October of 2004 through May of this year.
Cauthen says it's difficult to catch and prosecute the Internet thieves because most operate out of Eastern Europe.
California is one of only two states that allow individuals to place a security freeze on their credit file to prevent unauthorized access without a special password.