Postal fraud has been with us almost as long as has the postal service in this country. In recent years, the advancement and popularity of the Internet has opened up immense new worlds of information, trade and commerce. Unfortunately it has also created opportunities for less desirable pursuits, such as email fraud. Some of these scams, like the so-called Nigerian, 4-1-9 or advance fee scams, have been around for years and are adaptations of postal fraud methods that date back to the time before the Internet was even available to the public. Other forms of email fraud, such as phishing, were invented especially for use on the Internet. Here we will discuss a few variations of these types of scams and ways to detect and avoid them.
Years before the Internet had gained popularity, a letter arrived at our business address one day that had come all the way from Nigeria. It was type written on special light weight paper and mailed in a light weight air mail envelope to reduce postage costs. We had been chosen as the recipients, the letter stated, because of our impeccable business reputation. The letter told the story of the relative of a deceased official who had received a large legitimate inheritance and was attempting to get it out of the country before it was seized by an unscrupulous government. The sender proposed to wire the money to our account in the US, if we would be so kind as to provide the institution name and account number. For our help in this noble project, we were to be rewarded a sum in excess of one million dollars.
This, of course, was one of the original Nigerian postal scams, which have be reborn in the 21st century as vehicles for email fraud. Sadly, the reason they are still around is simply that they work so well. In fact, we will never know exactly how well they work, because a crucial element of the deception is the desire for ‘easy money’ or ‘something for nothing’ on the part of the victim. Thus, these crimes often go unreported. There are any number of variations used in this form of email fraud. Some will ask for a fee to be paid up front, or personal information, or both. A recipient of one of these emails should be guided by his or her common sense.
The more recent and very popular form of email fraud known as phishing involves identity theft and can be especially destructive. While many scams only rip the victim off one time, identity theft can go on inflicting damage long after it has been discovered. Phishing uses fraudulent email messages to trick the recipient into divulging private information such as credit card numbers, email passwords, bank account numbers, social security numbers and the like. This is often done using psychological pressure and implying that something will be taken away from the intended victim if he or she does not respond, usually before a stated time deadline expires. An example would be a bogus email stating “Your email address (account, etc.) will be deleted from our system if you do not update your information within 24 hours.” These statements are usually not as crude as our example, but sometimes they can come close.
Successful phishing email fraud depends on getting the email recipient to believe that the email is actually from a known and legitimate company. Unsolicited requests for information are a form of spam and to be viewed with great suspicion. However, if the recipient has requested to be on an email list generated by a legitimate company, there may not be a tendency to examine a phishing email using that company’s name as closely as one otherwise might. Our own email hosting site has been the subject of phishing attempts of late, and goes to great lengths to explain on its home page that it will never, ever request such information via email or over the phone. This in itself is an excellent indication of what to look for in a suspected phishing email. Reputable companies simply do not request such information in such a way.
In order to get around our heightened suspicions, many phishing emails now offer a link in the email that will take the recipient to the company’s ‘official’ website, such information can safely be divulged. Don’t fall for it. These are ‘spoof’ sites set up by the same email fraud perpetrators, and they can appear to be very real. Even the URL addresses themselves can appear deceptively similar to the real ones.
Another, and one of the crueler, forms of email fraud involves bogus sweepstakes, giveaways, contests, lotteries and the like. Again, like the Nigerian scams, that old ‘something for nothing’ psychology come into play. What makes these scams particularly cruel, though, is that they play on the emotions of the elderly and others on meager fixed incomes who want desperately to believe that their ship has finally come in. People who would otherwise never consider gambling will continue to send processing and other fees to scam artists in order to ‘stay on the list’ for the big payoff that will surely come any day. If you receive notification that you have won or may be about to win a prize in a contest that you know you never signed up for, look out.
While they do not constitute email fraud per se, it is also worth mentioning that mass emailings, chain letters and forwards of forwarded emails can be sources of misery in their own right. This is because it is so easy for them to pick up viruses, spy ware, malware and other nasty e-critters long the way as they move from computer to computer. It’s a lot like kissing a stranger who has kissed another stranger, etc. You don’t know what you’re likely to end up with, but it’s a safe bet you end up with something you didn’t want.
Knowledge has always been power, but perhaps never more so than when attempting to deal with the ever-changing realm of email fraud. There are intelligent lowlifes out there right now conjuring up new ways to take what is rightfully yours and ours. Ongoing education regarding email fraud and available monitoring services to counter identity theft is the responsibility of every individual Internet user. Fortunately, there is a long list of learning opportunities available… and it’s all on the Internet. Happy surfing!
Filed under: Email Fraud
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