What is email fraud and how can you protect yourself?

Email Fraud Graphic 2Email fraud is a multi-million-dollar crime in the United States but most of the perpetrators are off shore. Anyone can fall victim to this kind of theft as innocently as clicking on a link to update the settings of your Gmail account or confirming your address for an online order. Email fraud comes in many variations.

One of the most common forms of email fraud is known as the “Nigerian 419 letter,” in which the victim is promised a significant percentage of a large sum of money for which the fraudster requires a small, up-front payment to get. If the victim pays then the scam continues, with the fraudster making up a series of further payments required, or they just vanish.

Often the 419 scam, which gets its name from the number of the Nigerian penal code addressing this kind of crime, originates in countries like Nigeria, South Africa, the Netherlands, and Spain, to name a few.

Most people who fall for these scams fit one of the following profiles. Either they’re fearful for a family member, supposedly detained by a foreign government and needs money to escape, or are in hopes of a big payday with just a small investment.

Sadly, most of the people who fall into the first category are elderly. Often new to or more unfamiliar with the risks of the Internet, the letters would seem real to them and, as far as they know, family member is in jeopardy (i.e.: in a foreign prison, kidnapped by drug dealer, etc.) and needs help.

email fraud graphicFor the second group, those seeking easy money remember this: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is and you may have to pay a high price to learn that lesson. If you are uncertain, ask someone else to look at the information and validate its legitimacy.

Besides the 419 / Nigeria scams there are plenty of other variations that might cause a problem with little more than the click of a mouse. Many identity theft scams work through email, requiring the user to simply click on a link and enter some information with the promise of securing an account or verifying a purchase.

Before opening one of these emails, ask yourself the following questions. Did I buy something from or have any sort of account with the source of this email? Is the sender’s email address legitimate (does it use the company’s domain – i.e.: xxx@amazon.com, or xxx@apple.com)?

If you get an email asking you to input account information from a link, open a new browser window and go to the business website and log in normally. If there is something you need to know, the company will more than likely notify you of that as soon as you sign on. Never, ever log into an online account from a web link – no matter who it is from.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations offers these tips for Avoiding Nigerian Letter or “419” Fraud:

  • If you receive a letter from Nigeria asking you to send personal or banking information, do not reply in any manner. Send the letter to the U.S. Secret Service, your local FBI office, or the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. You can also register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission’s Complaint Assistant.
  • If you know someone who is corresponding in one of these schemes, encourage that person to contact the FBI or the U.S. Secret Service as soon as possible.
  • Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as Nigerian or foreign government officials asking for your help in placing large sums of money in overseas bank accounts.
  • Do not believe the promise of large sums of money for your cooperation.

More tips are available at the FBI’s anti-fraud website: http://www.fbi.gov/scams-safety/fraud and Cornell University also offers this list of sample email scam letters here: http://www.it.cornell.edu/security/phishbowl.cfm.