How to recognize and avoid email scams


I’ve written on this subject several times, but the message bears repeating. Email is the main source of all virus and Trojan horse infections on the Internet. This was true in 1996 when email was not nearly as widespread as it is today and it’s still true in 2009. While email provides us a convenient and powerful communications tool, it also provides cyber-criminals with an easy means for luring potential victims. The scams these criminals attempt run the gamut of old-fashioned bait-and-switch operations to phishing schemes using a combination of email and bogus web sites to trick victims into divulging sensitive information. To protect yourself from these scams, you must understand what they are, what they look like, how they work, and what you can do to avoid them.

Email Scams are Profitable

UCE–Unsolicited Commercial Email, or “spam”–is the starting point for many email scams. Before email came along a scammer had to contact each potential victim individually by mail, fax, telephone, or direct personal contact. These methods would often require a significant investment in time and money. To improve the chances of contacting susceptible victims, the scammer might have had to do advance research on the “marks” he or she targeted.

Email has changed the game for scammers. The convenience and anonymity of email, along with the capability it provides for easily contacting thousands of people at once, enables scammers to work in volume. The economics of scale work in the criminals’ favor. In short, it’s cheap to scam people and it doesn’t take much to make a profit at it. Scammers only need to fool a small percentage of the millions of people they email for their ruse to pay off. Think about it: If you send out a million emails (most of the time, scammers send out many more than this) and one in 10,000 persons is duped, you’ll get 100 responses. If your scam nets $50 for each of those, that’s a cool $5,000. Not bad for a few minutes’ work.

Examples of Email Scams

The FTC has a list of the 12 most common email scams posted on their site (http://www.ftc.gov/opa/1998/07/dozen.shtm). Among those listed are these:

  • Business Opportunity Scams
  • Making Money By Sending Bulk E-Mailings
  • Chain Letters
  • Work-At-Home Schemes
  • Health And Diet Scams
  • Easy Money
  • Get Something Free
  • Investment Opportunities

Anyone who has an unsecured email account has seen one or more of these at one time or another. I get one every day from “Oprah Winfrey”–”Lose 20 pounds in 20 minutes [exaggeration] with Amazing Acai berries in your beer! [more exaggeration].” Most people don’t fall for them, but most scammers are much more subtle.

Next issue, we’ll explore email scams, Trojan horse emails, phishing, and more in much greater detail. For now, US-CERT recommends that everyone:


  • Filter spam
  • Don’t trust unsolicited email
  • Treat email attachments with caution
  • Don’t click links in email messages
  • Install antivirus software and keep it up to date
  • Install a personal firewall and keep it up to date
  • Configure your email client for security

Next we’ll explore email scams in more detail and repeat the tips for how to avoid them.

As we saw above, Email scams continue because they are profitable. Savvy scammers can send out millions of emails per day and even if just a small percentage of people are duped, the numbers can be huge. Obviously, you don’t want to be a victim, but some of those emails can be very convincing; how can you recognize a scam? As always, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. Let’s look at some actual examples, many of which are being caught by my email spam filters.

Business Opportunity Scams

Most of these scams promise a lot of income for a small investment of time and money. Here’s one I get almost every day:

Subject: ***Automated Money Making System – set up it ONCE – forget about it and make money EVERY day***
From: “Giedrius”
Date: Mon, 1 Jun 2009 15:17:36 +0300
To: <xxx@xxxx>

Dear Internet Friend,


Find out the completely automated twitter growth & money making system for people that want to set up a system ONCE, forget about it, and have it grow and make money EVERY day!

http://twitter.8.sritis.lt

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Just set up your Twitter account to do this and get rich – Not! A couple of things stand out: 1). I don’t know anybody by the name of “Giedrius” and 2). I’ve never done business in Lithuania (.lt). My spam filter caught this, but not everyone is as lucky.

Work At Home Schemes

E-mail messages offer the chance to earn money in the comfort of your own home.
Here’s one:

Subject: 400 tested “Work at Home” websites
From: “WEB Review Agency”
Date: Sun, 31 May 2009 20:10:19 -0400
To: <xxx@xxxx>

——————————————–
See instructions above to stop receiving announcements from this advertiser.
This announcement is sent via your permission from a partner site.
To stop further announcements: http://racerring.com/dbm83/httpd/forms/ddce3cau.php?101253&16219614

Or Write:
Pacific Valley West, LLC
375 N. Stephanie St., Suite 1411
Henderson, NV 89014

That’s a real street address, but no “partner sites” I belong to have permission to send me anything unsolicited. Completely bogus.

Easy Money

These are similar to Business Opportunities scams which often tout the ease of getting into the business. Offers such as “Learn how to make $4,000 in one day,” or “Make unlimited profits exchanging money on world currency markets,” appeal to the desire to “Get-Rich-Quick.” Here’s an excerpt from one I get all the time: “Your blueprint to $48,000 a month passive income!” If it’s so easy, why aren’t we all millionaires? And why are they selling the information instead of working the plan themselves?

Investment Opportunities

These scams may tout outrageously high rates of return with no risk: “Get a Forex Robot that is capable of doubling your money every month!” This implies that all you have to do is use the robot and double your money. Often, there’s wording to suggest the promoters have high-level financial connections; that they’re privy to inside information; or that they guarantee the investment.

Get Something Free

The lure of valuable, free items — like computers or long distance phone cards — gets consumers to pay membership fees to sign up. After they pay the fee, consumers learn that they don’t qualify for the “free” gift until they recruit other “members.” It’s really a pyramid scheme in disguise. Here’s one, and what do you know, it’s our old friends Pacific Valley West from the work at home scam above:

Subject: Receive a Free DELL Laptop Computer
From: “Confirmation Number – DLL6752”
Date: Mon, 01 Jun 2009 11:44:22 -0400
To: xxx@xxxxx

Confirmation Number – DLL6752
Recieve a Free DELL Laptop Computer: http://outerinside.com/dbm83/l.php?409827&16219614
——————————————
To Stop Recieving Announcements About This Offer:
http://outerinside.com/dbm83/l.php?409828&16219614

Take An Offer

1700 7th Ave.Suite 116 #363
Seattle WA 98101
——————————————–
See instructions above to stop receiving announcements from this advertiser.
This announcement is sent via your permission from a partner site.
To stop further announcements: http://outerinside.com/dbm83/httpd/forms/c26cbb9u.php?101772&16219614

Or Write:
Pacific Valley West, LLC
375 N. Stephanie St., Suite 1411
Henderson, NV 89014

Someone close to me once didn’t believe me when I told them this is a scam, so I locked down my PC and browser, set up a Mailinator email address and proceeded to “sign up” for my “free” Dell laptop. It wasn’t long before my friend realized that by completing all the “offers” I was required to complete to “qualify” for the laptop, I could buy one outright.

Health & Diet Scams

These offer “scientific breakthroughs”, “miraculous cures”, “exclusive products”, “secret formulas”, and “ancient ingredients”. The one below (the embedded image containing the actual claims has been stripped) claims that this “Power Colon Cleanse” formula will get rid of extra pounds and inches. More than likely, you’ll simply be flushing your money down the toilet (literally).

Subject: Lose the Waste, Lose the Weight?
From: Cleanse Your Body (CleanseYourBody@beneaththehorizonoasis.com)
Sent: Tue 6/02/09 12:44 PM
To: xxxxx@hotmail.com

 

These examples should give you a good idea of what an email scam looks like. In Part 3, we’ll take a look at Trojan horse emails, phishing scams, and the Nigerian 419 scam.

Now, let’s repeat those tips from US-CERT:

  • Filter spam
  • Don’t trust unsolicited email
  • Treat email attachments with caution
  • Don’t click links in email messages
  • Install antivirus software and keep it up to date
  • Install a personal firewall and keep it up to date
  • Configure your email client for security

Now let’s explore Trojan horse emails, phishing scams, and the Nigerian 419 scam. I’ll also leave you once again with the US-CERT tips on how to avoid the common scams.

The Trojan Horse

Just like that historical gift the Greeks gave to the citizens of Troy, the Trojan horse email is a masquerade. Regardless of whether it appears desirable or something requiring attention, it actually contains a dangerous payload. Here’s a copy of a real email reported to snopes.com that contains Trojan-laden attachments, the usual means of spreading the malware:

From: Internal Revenue Service (fraud.dep@irs.gov)
Subject: Complaint Case Number 98473953 against Edward Walsh

Dear Edward Walsh,

You have received a complaint in regards to your business services .The complaint was filled By Mr. Kevin Ferguson on 05/29/2007/

Complaint Case Number: 875487596
Complaint made By Consumer Mr. Kevin Ferguson
Complaint registered against : – TildenPacific Property Trust
Date: 05/30/2007/
Instructions on how to resolve this complaint as well as a copy of the
original complaint are attached to this email.

Disputes involving consumer products and/or services may be arbitrated.
Unless they directly relate to the contract that is the basis of this
dispute, the following claims will be considered for arbitration only if
all parties agree in writing that the arbitrator may consider them:
Claims based on product liability;
Claims for personal injuries;
Claims that have been resolved by a previous court action, arbitration, or
written agreement between the parties.

The decision as to whether your dispute or any part of it can be
arbitrated rests solely with the IRS.

The IRS offers a binding arbitration service for disputes involving
marketplace transactions. Arbitration is a convenient, civilized way to
settle disputes quickly and fairly, without the costs associated with
other legal options.
© 2007 Council of IRS, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Just so you know, the IRS does not initiate taxpayer communications through email and I’m sure other countries’ revenue authorities don’t either.

The Phishing Scam

Phishing scams are emails designed to obtain someone’s private personal and financial information such as credit card accounts, bank account logins and passwords and other sensitive information. They are often disguised as being from the financial institution or credit card company itself, like this actual PayPal phishing scam:

Security Measures – Are You Traveling?

PayPal is committed to maintaining a safe environment for its community of buyers and sellers. To protect the security of your account, PayPal employs some of the most advanced security systems in the world and our anti-fraud teams regularly screen the PayPal system for unusual activity.

We recently noted one or more attempts to log in to your account from a foreign country. If you accessed your account while traveling, the attempt(s) may have been initiated by you.

Because the behavior was unusual for your account, we would like to take an extra step to ensure your security and you will now be taken through a series of identity verification pages.

IP Address       Time       Country
80.69.115.16  Oct 27, 2005 12:47:01 PDT Germany
80.69.115.16  Oct 29, 2005 18:37:55 PDT Germany
217.160.77.45 Nov 14, 2005 16:42:16 PDT United Kingdom
217.160.77.45 Nov 15, 2005 16:58:03 PDT United Kingdom

Click here to download PayPal security tool

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. Please understand that this is a security measure meant to help protect you and your account.

We apologize for any inconvenience.

If you choose to ignore our request, you leave us no choise but to temporaly suspend your account.

Thank you for using PayPal! The PayPal Team

Looks official, doesn’t it? Well, if the person clicks the link, an executable, named ‘PayPal-2.5.200-MSWin32-x86-2005.exe’ is downloaded. That program is a Trojan Horse which modifies the DNS server of the local workstation and then deletes itself. All future requests for ‘paypal.com’ will be transparently redirected to a phishing website. Were the person will be asked to enter credit card information. Gotcha!

The Nigerian 419 Scam

The perpetrators of Advance Fee Fraud (AFF), known internationally as “4-1-9” fraud after the section of the Nigerian penal code which addresses fraud schemes, are often very creative and innovative. They are also often quite gullible, if not downright stupid. If you want a good laugh, visit www.419eater.com and see what the scambaiters are up to. The email exchanges posted there are absolutely hilarious at times. A WARNING, though: 419 scammers are not nice people, they are thieves, liars, and generally very nasty, therefore you can expect some small use of adult language and themes on that website.

The dead giveaway that you have received one of these scam emails is an offer by the sender to transfer millions of dollars to you for whatever reason they invent in their particular version of the scam. Here’s an actual letter:

Subject: HELP ME TO SPREAD GOODNESS

My beloved,

It is my pleasure to contact you for a business venture which I intend to establish in your country.Though I have not met with you before but I believe, one has to risk confiding in someone to succeed sometimes in life.

There is this amount of FIFTEEN Million US Dollars which my Father deposited with a security company which he wanted to used for his political ambition in our Country before he was kidnapped and killed by unknown gun men. Hence my father and mother is dead, I do not have any other hope rather than this funds which is why I contacted you.

Now I have decided to invest these money in your country or any where safe enough outside Africa for security and political reasons. I only give all praises to God who made every thing to be like this, my father is gone, I can count you as my father if you wish to be a Daddy to me. [Pass the sickbag]

Hence this investment shall be made in your company upon your withdrawal of the consignment, I do not have money to work on this and will commit suicide and die [And die? Suicide just isn’t good enough these days] if I cannot secure my late father’s treasure which he got for his family.

I want you to help us claim and receive the consignment which will be sent to you through diplomatic means to your address to avoid any traces of the funds and to enable you plan for the investment in your Country.

I will like to invest part of the money into these three investment in your Country but, if there is any other business that is better than my suggestion, I will be very glad to follow your advice.

1). Real estate
2). The transport industry
3). Five star hotel

If you can be of an assistance to me, I will be pleased to offer to you 20% Of the total fund while the balance will be invested by you. I need your understanding and honesty to this project, I assure you to always be your brother.

I await your soonest response.

Respectfully yours,
Miss Jani Adams

I hope you are now better equipped to spot email scams on your own and know how to handle them (DELETE). Nevertheless let me refresh your memory on those tips from US-CERT:

  • Filter spam
  • Don’t trust unsolicited email
  • Treat email attachments with caution
  • Don’t click links in email messages
  • Install antivirus software and keep it up to date
  • Install a personal firewall and keep it up to date
  • Configure your email client for security
About the Author

Ken Harthun

Ken is our resident security expert with years of experience in the field. He can also carry a tune as an accomplished musician. Ken has written for many publications and presently is a contributor to IT Knowledge Exchange.

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