|They promise you everything from untold riches to dream vacations to naughty photos. Some appeal to the do-gooder in you by asking for donations, while others try to trick you into revealing your most personal information.
Chances are you’ve come across these and other kinds of dubious emails in your inbox. Con artists and pranksters (attracted by the Net’s popularity and relative anonymity) are using email as a tool to bilk people out of their money, spread viruses, and compromise their privacy. If you’re not careful, a simple email message can end up wreaking havoc on your personal and financial life.A Widespread ProblemMany of the most commonly reported online scams are spread via email, according to the National Consumers League. These include work-at-home schemes, bogus credit card offers, fraudulent business opportunities, and offers of “free” goods.
“While not all unsolicited email messages are fraudulent, consumers should be very suspicious of anyone who promises them easy money, incredibly cheap prices, or ‘free’ services that may have hidden costs.” says Susan Grant, director of the NCL’s Internet Fraud Watch program. “Many of the top ten Internet frauds are lurking in your inbox. The key is to recognize and report them.”
In many cases, the spread of email fraud has prompted Uncle Sam to get involved. The Federal Trade Commission has compiled a list of common email scams that include chain letters, health and diet scams, credit repair offers, and more.
Old Tricks, New Medium
One example is the so-called Nigeria scam, which Mikkelson says has been circulating in one form or another as far back as the 1920s. Although there are numerous variations, one common version works like this: You receive an email from a Nigerian “official” who needs help transferring millions of dollars out of that country. The official asks to use your bank account for the transaction, promising you a healthy cut of the money in return.
But soon after you get on board, the “official” begins to report unanticipated problems with the transfer and tells you to send some money in advance to help the transaction along. Of course, the big transfer never happens, and you’re left with a depleted bank account. The NCL’s Internet Fraud Watch says the Nigeria scam is the fastest-growing online fraud, with the number of reports rising a staggering 900 percent from 2000 to 2001.
But if hoaxes like the Nigeria scam are old news, why do people still fall for them? Mikkelson says the main reason is “the power of the written word” but adds that the Net has given these phony come-ons an unprecedented urgency, spurring people to act immediately on what they read without considering the consequences.
“When you see it in written form, it builds up a certain pattern of believability,” she says. “People tend to react [immediately] to things they find in their inbox.”
|How to Take Action (and How Not To)
So what do you do when you get an email message that looks questionable? And, just as importantly, what should you not do? Use the following list of tips—compiled from the advice of government agencies, consumer protection groups, and others—as a guide: