Recognizing and Avoiding Email Scams

How Scams Work!

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Email Scams Have Been With Us Since The 1980s

Email Provides Us A Convenient And Powerful Communications Tool

Unfortunately, it also provides scammers and other malicious individuals an easy means for luring potential victims.

The scams they attempt run from old-fashioned bait-and-switch operations to phishing schemes using a combination of email and bogus websites to trick victims into divulging sensitive information. To protect yourself from these scams, you should understand what they are, what they look like, how they work,  and what you can do to avoid them. The following recommendations can minimize your chances of falling victim to an email scam:

  • Filter spam.
  • Don’t trust unsolicited emails.
  • 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.

These recommendations are explained below in the section “What You Can Do to Avoid Becoming a Victim.” Ignoring them may leave you vulnerable to identity theft, information theft, the abuse of your computer for illegal activity, the receipt of bogus or illegal merchandise, and financial loss.

Recognizing Email Scams

Unsolicited Commercial Email Or Spam Is The Starting Point For Many Email Scams

Before the advent of email, a scammer had to contact each potential victim individually by post, fax, telephone, or through 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. Scammers only need to fool a small percentage of the tens of thousands of people they email for their ruse to pay off. For tips on reducing spam in your email in-box, see our FAQ on Reducing Spam

The following sections provide information to help you spot an email scam when it lands in your mailbox. They describe some but by no means all, of the many email-based scams you’re likely to encounter. Armed with this information, you will better recognize email scams, even those not specifically mentioned here.

Regular Email Fraud Schemes

Many email scams have existed for a long time. In fact, a number of them are merely “recycled” scams that predate the use of email.

The list includes:

  • bogus business opportunities
  • chain letters
  • work-at-home schemes
  • health and diet scams
  • easy money
  • “free” goods
  • investment opportunities
  • bulk email schemes
  • cable descrambler kits
  • “guaranteed” loans or credit

The following sections describe some common fraud schemes initiated through email.

Bogus Business Opportunities

These scams promise the opportunity to make a great deal of money with very little effort.

They’re normally full of enticements such as “Work only hours a week,” “Be your own boss,” “Set your own hours,” and “Work from home.” The email messages  offering these “opportunities” often have subject lines that look like the following:

  • Make a Regular Income with Online Auctions
  • Put your computer to work for you!
  • Get Rich Click
  • Use the Internet to make money
  • eBay Insider Secrets Revealed 6228

In most cases, the email gives very little detail about the nature of the business opportunity. Most provide an address or website from which you can, for a fee,  obtain an “information kit” about the opportunity. These opportunities, however, usually amount to nothing more than pyramid schemes in which the  “opportunity” involves your ability to recruit more unsuspecting people to buy into the scam. Eventually, the scam is uncovered or the pool of new recruits runs dry and it fails.

Health and Diet Scams

Health and diet scams prey on the insecurities some people have about the state of their well-being. These insecurities make some people particularly susceptible to the scams because they may be reluctant or embarrassed to discuss their problems with a doctor, or they can’t afford to buy legitimate drugs or treatment. The scams attempt to lure consumers with promises of quick fixes and amazing results, discount pricing, fast delivery, waived prescription requirements, privacy, and discreet packaging. The email offering these items will have subject lines that look like the following:

  • Need to lose weight for summer?
  • Reduce body fat and build lean muscle without exercise
  • Increase Your Sexual Performance Drastically
  • Young at any age
  • Takes years off your appearance
  • Natural Health Remedy That Works!
  • Gives energy and burns fat

Though they may be backed by customer testimonials, beware: the products don’t work.

Discount Software or App Offers

These scams frequently consist of advertisements for cheap versions of commercial software like Windows XP or Photoshop. The discounts offered may be hard to believe, and with good reason: the scammers either do not deliver the promised software at all or provide illegal, pirated versions preloaded with Trojan horse software the scammer or other malicious individuals can use to exploit your computer and the information it contains.

Nigerian Prince – 419 Advanced Fee Fraud

These schemes are quite elaborate and despite their somewhat preposterous appearance manage to hook a surprising number of victims. Essentially, these scams attempt to entice the victim into a bogus plot to acquire and split a large sum of cash. Many perpetrators of this kind of fraud have been Nigerian citizens.  Consequently, the name “419 scheme” is taken from the section of the Nigerian penal code that addresses fraud.

419 scams are recognizable by their subject lines, which frequently call for an urgent response or refer to a personal introduction, and sender names, which are frequently (though not always) African or African inspired. Examples of senders and subject lines include those in the list below.

You should note, however, that these examples are merely a few of the many thousands of variations of names, subject lines, or stories used in these scams.


Subject Line

Charles Conneh Re: Pleased to meet you!
Miss Kate Kasaka Miss Kate Kasaka
Mr.Adnan A.K.Ismail Cooperation
MR. Michael Okpala. Good dey from MR. Michael Okpala.

A 419 advance fee fraud begins with an email that looks like this:

Date: Wednesday, August 24, 2008 5:55 PM -0700
From: “Mr. Henry Bassey Udoma” <>

Subject: From: Henry (Regarding Dr. H. Paul Jacobi)
From: Henry (Regarding Dr. H. Paul Jacobi)

I am sending you this private email to make a passionate appeal to you for assistance. Kindly accept my apology for contacting you this way and  forgive me if this is not acceptable to you. My name is Henry Bassey Udoma; I am an auditor at one of the Nigerian Banks. On Tuesday, 19 January,  2006, one Dr. H. Paul Jacobi a foreigner, made a numbered time (Fixed) Deposit, valued at £10,550,000.00 (Ten Million, Five Hundred and Fifty  Thousand Pounds) for twelve calendar months in my Bank Branch.
Upon Maturity, we sent a routine notification to his forwarding address but got no reply. After a month, we sent a reminder and finally we discovered  from his company that Dr. Paul A. Jacobi was aboard the Egypt Air Flight 990, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on October 31,  2006. After further investigation, it was discovered that he died without making a WILL and all attempts to trace his next of kin proved abortive….

These schemes work by getting the victim to take the initial bait, then slowly convincing him or her of the legitimacy of the plot through a series of forged  documents, carefully crafted communications, and even visits by the victim to the country of origin for meetings with bogus “officials” in phony “government  offices.” At key junctures in the scam, the perpetrators will ask the victim to advance them money to pay bogus fees or bribes. Additionally, they may extract what amounts to an extortion payment by threatening to cut the victim out of the plot. Once the perpetrators believe they’ve gotten all they could from the victim, they cut off communication and vanish.

In short, if you discover an email in your inbox proposing a complicated arrangement to secure and split funds in a foreign land, you can safely assume someone is trying to ensnare you in a 419 scam.

Social Engineering/Phishing Email

Social engineering is a strategy for obtaining information people wouldn’t normally divulge, or prompting an action people normally wouldn’t perform, by preying on their natural curiosity and/or willingness to trust. Perpetrators of scams and other malicious individuals combine social engineering with email in a  number of ways.

Phishing Email

Phishing emails are crafted to look as if they’ve been sent from a legitimate organization. These emails attempt to fool you into visiting a bogus website to either download malware (viruses and other software intended to compromise your computer) or reveal sensitive personal information. The perpetra