Cash a check, maybe go to jail

This article was originally published by MSN Money, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2009.

Did you get conned into joining a check-cashing scam? Even if authorities decide you're an innocent victim, you could find yourself owing a bank thousands of dollars.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Cash a check, go to jail. Or at the very least, empty your own savings account and ruin your credit.

It's happened to hundreds of thousands of Americans who believed that banks don't make funds available unless the checks they've deposited are genuine.

It happened to Calvin Barnett, who could face 11 years in prison for doing what he said he thought was his work-at-home job.

As unemployment reaches its worst levels in generations, scammers are finding a growing pool of victims all too willing to deposit strangers' checks, then return part of the money by wire transfers.

"There's a knowledge gap that these scammers are clearly taking advantage of," said Susan Grant, the director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America. "Under federal law here in the U.S., financial institutions have to give consumers access to the money from checks and money orders they deposit pretty quickly, usually within one to five business days. It can take much longer for counterfeits to be discovered, by which time the consumer has already sent the money."

"The problem is the con men are very persuasive," said Nessa Feddis, a vice president and senior counsel at the American Bankers Association, which is working with the Consumer Federation to educate consumers about check fraud. "People are desperate. They want to work. They want a job."

What if the Internet breaks?

This article was originally published by MSN Money, on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009.

The 40-year-old system might be vulnerable to technical collapse and cyberattack, which could cause widespread chaos in fields from banking to health care to government.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

When your Internet service goes down, it's at best an inconvenience. If you rely on it for business, it can quickly cost you money.

So imagine: What happens if the Internet breaks?

Picture people wandering the streets lost without GPS or maps on their iPhones, unable to pay for food or other goods with a simple swipe of a card.

Companies would have to resort to faxes and phone calls instead of e-mail; they'd quickly reach capacity and be unable to function. Credit cards wouldn't work; stores and hospitals would run short of supplies. Even electrical power to our homes could be disrupted.

"It would be a mess," said Dave Marcus, the director of security research for McAfee. "You would be taking businesses that were designed to do all their point-of-sale and financial transactions through the Internet and going back to pen and paper and taking checks in a car to the bank. People would lose their minds."

On the 40th anniversary of the first transmission over the earliest version of the Internet, it's more than an idle question to examine the network's fragility. It's been more than 20 years since the last systemwide overhaul, and Internet infrastructure is still based on 1970s ideas about computer networks.

Headline-making outages of popular Web sites such as YouTube and Twitter merely hint at the damage a full-blown failure could wreak. The Internet protocols that allow computers to communicate in networks have infiltrated every sector of our economy.

"The Internet has moved from being a toy or ornament to something that's central to our economy," said James Lewis, a senior fellow at CSIS, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. "We've automated all these processes, which makes our economy much more efficient, which means cheap. But it also means we're now dependent."