Think only the pathetically credulous and the uneducated fall victim to outrageous e-mail scams? Don't believe it.
In 2001, a Massachusetts psychotherapist named John W. Worley clicked on an email purportedly from Captain Joshua Mbote from, you guessed it, Nigeria. As recounted in theNew Yorker, Worley soon found himself in the grip of the classic "Nigerian Prince" scam, a terrible mistake that ultimately cost him more than $40,000. Even worse, Worley, not the con artists, was convicted of bank fraud and money laundering related to bogus checks sent to him as part of the scheme.
Nine years later, variations of that scam and other e-mail and Internet cons designed to trick you out of your money and sometimes your identity, are all over the Internet. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 216,000 complaints from individuals who had been scammed via email and another 55,000 from victims of scams that began on the Web.
[ For more on new security traps, see CIO.com's "10 Tips for Safer Browsing: Supercookies and New Dangers". ]
Although many of the come-ons that clog your e-mail box are transparently ridiculous, their sophistication has grown. You've probably seen invitations to work at home for big bucks or to become a secret shopper. While many of us would never send upfront money to someone we don't know, the secret shopper artists now offer to give you the money to buy stuff.
Their checks even clear and the funds appear in your bank account. Before long, there's a reason to send money to your sponsor. But then the banks involved discover that the checks were fraudulent and take back the money. At that point, you're out of luck and out whatever money you sent.
A variation on that ploy is the check over-payment scam, one of 10 highlighted by the FTC on its OnGuard Online site. It works like this: You sell something on line and the buyer offers to pay with a check. At the last minute, the so-called buyer (or the buyer's "agent") comes up with a reason for writing the check for more than the purchase price, and asks you to wire back the difference after you deposit the check. As in the secret shopper scam, the check clears but ultimately is counterfeit and you're stuck repaying the bank.
Scammers frequently update their ploys to take advantage of events capturing the public's attention. I recently got a very nice note from BP (not really) notifying me of $450,000 in compensation related to the Gulf oil spill. Never mind that I live nearly 2000 miles from New Orleans. I'm not sure how the scam actually works, but since they wanted me to reply with a scanned copy of my passport, I'd guess that identity theft is involved.
Other Popular Scams
Then there are con artists who get your attention by warning you of scams. One subject line I noticed recently was, "Forex Robots Scam—Beware." The e-mail was a scam, of course. I've also been getting e-mail (purportedly) from FBI Director Robert Mueller explaining that the U.S. government is looking after citizens hit by fraud, and if I pay a fee of just $295 I'll get my multi-million-dollar reimbursement at an ATM. OK, that one's pretty transparent, but you get the idea. We've come a long way from e-mails touting fake Viagra.
Another ubiquitous scam remains popular: The offer for leading-edge miracle diet drugs or some other miraculous medical product. Generally, the FTC points out, these ads are accompanied by testimonials from doctors and patients, and offer a money-back guarantee.
Foreign lotteries appeal to the gambler in all of us. First of all, it's illegal for U.S. citizens to play foreign lotteries—and more to the point—you'll inevitably be asked to pay "taxes," "fees," or "customs duties" to collect your prize. If you send money, you won't get it back.
Many scams vary in the come-on, but end up asking you to wire money to someone. Keep in mind that wiring money is like sending cash: once it's gone, you can't get it back, the FTC warns. One con that seems to be still growing in popularity starts with e-mails appearing to be from a friend or a relative, claiming that he or she has been robbed in a foreign city and needs a quick loan to pay hotel bills and get home. You wire the cash and later find out it was a hoax. Your money is gone, of course.
How to Fight Back
Although the FTC isn't a law enforcement agency, it does work closely with police, prosecutors and other regulators in the U.S. and abroad. Earlier this month, a U.S. district court, at the request of the FTC, ordered the marketers of acai berry supplements, "colon cleansers," and other products to temporarily halt "an Internet sales scheme that allegedly scammed consumers out of $30 million or more in 2009 alone through deceptive advertising and unfair billing practices," the commission announced.
The FTC has collected a database of hundreds of millions of scam e-mails, and uses the data to help track down swindlers. If you get one, it only takes an instant to forward it to the FTC at firstname.lastname@example.org. You might help.
If you think you may have responded to an international scam file a complaint at www.econsumer.gov. Complaints are entered into Consumer Sentinel Network, an online database used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Then visit the FTC's identity theft website at ftc.gov/idtheft. You can also report these scams to your state Attorney General, using contact information you'll find at www.naag.org.
All of these warnings come much too late to help John Worley, the victim of the Nigerian Prince scam. Hopefully, they'll help keep the bad guys from doing you harm.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at email@example.com