How E-mail Scams Work

By: Tim Crosby

Avoiding E-mail Scams

E-mail scams such as phishing involve sending fake e-mails.
E-mail scams such as phishing involve sending fake e-mails.
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E-mail scams are constantly evolving, driven by the nature of the crooks who invent them. In many cases, avoiding e-mail scams or Internet fraud can be achieved by being aware of the different methods that scam artists use. Here are some prime examples of e-mail scams along with tips on how to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Phishing: This scam involves thieves trolling the Internet with fake e-mails, Web sites, chat rooms and other devices while illegally using the names of trusted financial brands in an attempt to convince victims to divulge personal financial information such as credit card or social security numbers.
  • Money handling: This scam involves recruiting a third-party to receive funds stolen through another e-mail scam into an account before then transferring the money overseas, minus a commission. One such e-mail that recruits money handlers, or "mules," often has a subject line like, "I need your assistance," and a message that describe the sender as an overseas government official who is trying to move his countries' assets to a new secure location.
  • Advance fee fraud: In this arrangement, a person is approached by someone posing as Nigerian official about an opportunity to make a huge commission by helping the crooked "official" hide a massive overpayment on a government contract. In the end, the victim is persuaded to provide a large up-front fee to keep the transaction moving forward.
  • Lottery scams: Potential victims are notified via e-mail that they have won a large prize in a foreign lottery. In most cases, the victim is asked to provide either an up-front fee, or bank account or social security numbers so that the lottery can transfer the money.
  • Internet auction scams: In this case, scam artists pick victims from those using sites such as eBay or Craigslist. They contact those bidding by e-mail asking to work with them outside the auction to make a deal. As usual, the perpetrator asks for payment up front, often in cash.

The best way to avoid e-mail scams and Internet fraud is by using common sense, experts agree. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you receive an e-mail from an unknown source, practice extreme caution. Keep in mind that the latest wave of e-mail fraud relies on targeting e-mails to specific individuals whom the crooks have picked through various means. Because of this, such an e-mail may contain information designed to peak your interest. Don't be fooled.


Also, never click on a link provided in such an e-mail, as it may take you to a site where malicious software will attempt to invade your computer. If someone is offering you something for free, such as software downloads, be suspicious.

Above all, NEVER give out personal, sensitive information, such as social security, bank account or credit card numbers in response to such e-mails.

Vincent Weafer, an Internet security expert for Symantec, advises computer users to make sure they take advantage of patches offered by browser providers, which can plug holes in security systems discovered after the software's release, CNN reported.

Money Magazine asked several identity theft experts how they protect themselves. The experts said the most important steps include:

  • getting free credit reports three times a year
  • keeping an eye on online banking and brokerage accounts
  • using cash or credit cards (not debit cards, which are associated with your bank account) when practical
  • telling banks and other institutions not to share your financial info with another party.

Consumers should guard their social security number closely and ignore e-mail and other solicitations asking for sensitive information. On the next page, we'll talk about how to report e-mail scams.