From the beginning, email has played an essential role in the way we use the Internet – and crooks looking to score their next big scam have always known it. While we are still learning about some of the newer techniques used to scam everyday users on social networking sites like Twitter, some of the most well-known and effective email scams are still circulating to this very day. Here are the five that you, your friends and family members should all know about and avoid participating in, no matter what.
1. The infamous Nigerian Scam.
Also known as the 419, and not always originating from Nigeria, this classic advance-fee fraud email scam has been duping people for decades. The great urban myth debunker site Snopes.com sums up this scam succinctly: “A wealthy foreigner who needs help moving millions of dollars from his homeland promises a hefty percentage of this fortune as a reward for assisting him.” It’s a clever ploy that preys upon the two powerful human instincts of altruism and greed. After all, who wouldn’t want to help someone in a politically unstable region – especially if there’s a nice chunk of change involved? Unfortunately, it’s another case of “too good to be true.” This persuasive scam has been so effective over the years, it’s even hoodwinked successful, educated targets like the co-owner of a consulting firm, a public treasurer in Michigan, and even a law professor with three doctorates.
2. Account phishing and phony websites.
If someone is asking you to give sensitive digital information like your username or password over an unsecured medium like instant messaging or email, they’re “phishing” for the details they’d need to take over your account. Often, these email scams look legitimate with a familiar logo from a big brand or business you trust like eBay or your bank. But before you hit reply or click on a link, take a closer look. Is the sender’s email address the actual .com URL of the business in question, or is it something else? Hover over the link – does it take you to an unfamiliar destination? As a general rule, you should never type in your username, password or account details anywhere but the actual, verified and secure website itself. Navigate to it directly instead of trusting links sent through email, and never transmit sensitive account details over email messages.
3. Pleas for help during a natural disaster.
When a natural disaster shocks the world with heartbreaking reports and footage, it can inspire many of us to find ways to help. Unfortunately, these events also inspire scammers to swindle funds from good Samaritans. Even now as Japan continues to struggle in the wake of several earthquakes and tsunamis, email scams that claim to be raising money for disaster relief in Japan have already begun circulating. But just because there are unethical opportunists in the way doesn’t mean you shouldn’t donate resources if your conscience compels. The best way to dodge these fraudsters is to stick to well-known, established humanitarian charities and to donate directly through those organizations’ websites – not through email links that can redirect to fake accounts, or individual money transfer companies (like Western Union).
4. “You just won a ____!”
If you just won a prize or lottery you don’t remember participating in, chances are you probably didn’t! We all love getting something for free, but if you’re discovering this in an email and the prize in question is especially eye-popping, be suspicious. Like #1, this email scam typically requires you to pay a “processing fee” – and guess where your legitimately hard-earned money is going to go?
5. "Get rich quick" schemes.
Who doesn’t want to make money fast? Actually, that question could even be the intro sentence to this popular strain of email scam, which can take a variety of forms. Whether it's someone you don’t know who wants to tell you about a hot stock nobody’s heard of (yet) or an “online investment opportunity” in newsletter form, the “get rich quick” scheme may sound tempting, but it's best to just ignore and delete as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, email scams will be around as long as email itself still exists. So how can you protect yourself? Search online regularly to see which new scams are circulating, and consider the following advice found on Wikipedia:
- Keep your email address as secret as possible.
- Use a spam filter (most programs & web email clients have these built in already).
- Ignore & delete unsolicited emails, emails from people you don’t recognize, or emails from people you recognize that seem suspicious (containing a link or commentary that doesn’t sound like them).
- Resist temptation if something sounds “too good to be true.”
What other email scams have you or someone you know fallen for, or successfully avoided? Share your story in a comment!