Can you help me? I’m nearly finished writing what’s bound to be a best-selling book about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To pay my rent and support my invalid wife, our two special-ed children, and my dear elderly parents, I’ve used up nearly all of the advance I received from my publisher. If you would be so kind to transfer a small sum of money to me, I promise to share with you the tremendous royalties that my book is destined to earn.
We all get scam solicitations similar to this. With the popularization of the Internet, these scams have exploded. To most of us, they’re transparent enough, but e-mail scams do hook their victims.
Approximately 1.2 million U.S. computer users suffered phishing losses of more than $900 million between May 2004 and May 2005, according to market research firm Gartner, Inc. Phishing involves e-mails (and sometimes instant messages and phone calls) aimed at persuading you to provide details about your credit card, bank account, online payment service, or eBay password.
Other e-mail scams, called advance fee fraud, involve attempts to persuade you to pay a relatively small fee in order to realize a much larger gain, as I did with my spoof scam at the beginning of this column. The scammer might indicate that you’ve inherited money from an uncle you didn’t know you had, but to collect it you need to pay legal fees first. Or you won a lottery but you need to pay a small fee of “only” $100 to obtain your prize.
The most well-known advance fee frauds were initiated by crooks in Nigeria who would e-mail their potential victims that they’re having difficulty transferring money out of their country and they need help. This is in violation of Section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code, which is the reason that advance fee frauds are sometimes called 419 scams.
Most of these scam e-mails are stopped by anti-spam filters employed by Internet service providers or security suites such as Symantec Corp.’s Norton Internet Security (http://www.symantec.com) and McAfee, Inc.’s Internet Security Suite (http://www.mcafee.com). But some slip through.
One option is to simply delete the e-mails, says Eve Edelson, author of the new book Scamorama: Turning The Tables On Email Scammers: “You can’t win a lottery you didn’t enter. Chances are very slim[—]you didn’t inherit anything from someone you never heard of.”
Another option is to learn to read the headers of the e-mails. You can sometimes get a scammer’s Internet access cancelled this way, says Edelson. Her book provides tips for people so motivated.
It’s generally not worth it to try to get the legal authorities involved. Because these scams are usually international, prosecuting them is difficult. The U.S. Secret Service reportedly won’t intervene unless you’ve suffered losses of at least $50,000.
Finally, you can “scambait” the scammers, leading them on in thinking they’re about to strike pay dirt with you. Among those who do it, says Edelson, there’s psychological satisfaction to be had.
Edelson’s book and the accompanying Web site (http://www.scamorama.com) are about these pranks (some of which are hilarious) as well as the sometimes ruinous scams that prompt them. Edelson, who’s a system administrator for a California research
institution, says she’s never been a victim herself. She put up the Web site in 1999 to amuse her friends.
At first the site just documented the scam attempts. Then people began forwarding to her the e-mails they sent back to scammers. Scambaiters sometimes pretend to be cartoon or historical characters, and they can make up really wild stories, keeping scammers coming
back for months or even years in hope of the big score. Instead, they wind up on her Web site, and now in her book, which provides more detail.
Edelson used to scambait but she doesn’t anymore. “I regard myself as a curator of advance fee scam and scambaiting correspondences.”
Some scammers, says Edelson, are sole proprietors. Others are part of gangs in which the boss owns a room full of computers and phone lines. A 19th-century French version used the postal service. The scammer wrote letters to royalist sympathizers indicating he was a servant to an aristocrat who had been condemned by The Revolution. The scammer revealed that he knew where his master hid his fortune. But, he wrote, it will take some money to mount an expedition.
The more things change ...
Don’t go too far, though. Some victims of 419 scams have reportedly been murdered while traveling abroad to try to recoup their losses.