September 15, 2020
By Andrew McKean
In 2019, as Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) considered moving all sales of its hunting and fishing licenses to the Internet, some resource managers in the agency worried about fake sites trying to dupe hunters and anglers.
Would setting up a virtual storefront for licenses, which account for just over 70 percent of the agency’s annual budget, give online pirates and thieves another pool of customers to defraud? The question was especially sharp for FWP, since a substantial share of its customers are not particularly tech-savvy or familiar with doing business electronically, as the agency discovered when it moved a portion of its license sales to the Internet a few years ago.
But this time around, FWP proposed moving all of its roughly $50 million license sales transactions to the web.
“We knew that without good public outreach and information, and without a good license interface, that we might have problems not only with fulfilling legitimate sales but also with opening the door to fraud,” said an FWP license agent who asked not to be named because she didn’t have authorization to speak on behalf of the department.
Montana’s license sales went online starting in February, a move that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and FWP’s decision to close its offices and in-person license sales. The online migration seems to be working, says the source, though because of office closures, she didn’t have numbers for total license sales or whether any specific types of electronic transactions have proved especially difficult.
“Our main worry, honestly, has been customers’ ability to print off their carcass tags at home,” said the agent. “But we’ve changed that, since our offices have been closed, and are now mailing carcass tags to fulfill the transactions that people have done online.”
Time will tell how Montana’s migration to online sales is accepted, but the department is on the lookout for fake or fraudulent sites pretending to sell Montana licenses.
It’s a consideration that Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) knows well. Last summer, the DNR notified the public to beware of online hunting and fishing license scams in the state.
“The DNR was aware of at least two websites appearing to offer fishing or hunting licenses,” said Kimberly Currie, Wisconsin DNR director of customer and outreach services. “After paying a fee, consumers only received information on how to apply for a hunting or fishing license.”
Currie noted that these “phishing” attempts collect sensitive personal data as part of their unauthorized transactions.
“You will not receive a valid fishing license from these misleading websites,” she said. “But, you will be charged non-refundable fees despite the money-back guarantee declared on the site. The best way to make sure you don’t fall prey to these scammers is to purchase your license directly from the DNR or its authorized agents.”
Though the targeting of hunters and anglers is a current development, fake license-sale sites are nothing new on the Internet. In 2018, American consumers reported more than 3 million fraud complaints that resulted in about $1.48 billion in lost revenue. The amount of money bilked by scammers increases every year, and their ruses become more sophisticated, says the chief innovation officer of a company that provides legitimate licensing services to state agencies.
“During COVID, a number of states are seeing license scam ‘stories’ telling people that seasons are cancelled, licenses are waived and other false information,” said the executive, who also didn’t want to be named because his agency clients hadn’t approved the statement. “DNRs are playing whack-a-mole as they continue to pop up. Additionally, there are a handful of sites that purport to sell licenses, but are really harvesting emails and personal information, and then sending people off to the real license site. Most of these sites are outside the U.S. and outside any jurisdiction.”
In other words, those sites are luring hunters and fishermen into entering the kinds of data the scammers need to engage in identity or credit card theft.Some of these scammers started operating even before the pandemic. Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division reported in January a sham license website that appeared as an advertisement when users searched for “Georgia fishing license” on popular Internet search engines.
“The site then invites you to enter your personal information such as name, date of birth, social security number, driver’s license number, phone number, email address, and residential address,” reported the agency in a news release. “It gathers this info, but never asks for payment for the license.”
Georgia DNR was attempting to locate the offshore operators of the fraudulent site and shut it down.
The take-away from all this? Be sure to click only on official links to state agencies (see sidebar), and call phone support if you have any questions about the legitimacy of a site, especially if it asks for personal information in a manner or format that you feel is suspect.
The topic is likely to accelerate as more states move their licensing to automated, online transactions. Both Idaho and Oregon are adding more electronic license options, including the ability to buy a “virtual” carcass tag that requires a smart phone to fulfill a mobile validation process in the field.
Oregon’s paperless system, which is estimated to save as much as $2 million annually over the old system, required an investment in updated data and security requirements, but hunters and anglers appear to like the arrangement, Fish and Wildlife Director Curt Melcher said in 2018.
“Customers have been asking for the ability to carry tags on their mobile phones and for a more mobile-friendly system,” he said. “We’re pleased this new system will bring both cost savings and an improved customer experience for Oregon’s hunters and anglers.”
As long as customers do their part by confirming that any site that purports to sell fishing and hunting licenses is indeed the state agency or a contractor working on behalf of the agency, then the digital future of licensing looks bright, indeed.
Go to the Source: Use these sites—and only these sites—to purchase licenses and tags