Phishing for Dollars: Internet Scamsters Gone Wild

Hacker typing on a laptop with binary code background

By M.J. Plaster

Phishing for dollars—it’s an old game that predates the Internet, but it’s more lucrative today thanks to the speed of Internet travel. Internet scams are a growth industry, with innocent people losing $800,000,000 in one decade. The best way to beat the scamsters is to come to the game armed with knowledge, so let’s get to it.

Top Five Internet Scams

1. The 419 Scam

Named for the section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud, the 419 scam has more juice than the Energizer bunny. The details vary, but generally the email comes from an alleged Nigerian prince, princess, dignitary, etc., who wants to gift you several million dollars to help bring money into the U.S.

The catch? You’ll need to divulge banking information, make a ‘small’ payment and/or make a trip to Africa on your dime to get the goods.

The scam is so prevalent that several dedicated groups have gone on the offensive. The Wall Street Journal reports that scambaiters turn the tables by baiting the scamsters and “eating up their time” to keep them away from naïve victims. While the counteroffensives make for hilarious reading, the scambaiters were born without the fear gene, the same gene that prompts you to delete the Nigerian scam email without answering it.

2. Phishing Expeditions

I almost fell for this one when I opened an email that appeared to be from Comcast. Without thinking, I started to respond and verify some information. All of a sudden, the odd sentence structure and misspelled words set off my radar alerting me that English was not the sender’s native tongue. I realized it was a phishing expedition for identity information, and I trashed my response just in the nick of time.

Today, the scamsters have reached new depths—they send emails that say your bill is overdue and you’re going to be arrested if you don’t pay immediately with a gift or debit card that can’t be tracked. Comcast cannot arrest you for a bill in arrears. Bank, utility, and IRS email scams follow the same pattern.

3. Microsoft/Software Company Scams

If you run Windows, you might not suspect anything if Microsoft were to contact you about a problem with your computer, right? Wrong! Unless you have some relationship with the company or an employee or have made prior contact with a support team member, you won’t receive a legitimate email from Microsoft.

The scam email alerts you to some grave computer danger and contains an attachment—a program to allow a ‘Microsoft technicians’ to take control of your computer and ‘fix’ it. Once installed, the scamsters steal every piece of information they can get their hands on.

A slight twist of the scam involves a keylogger attachment that, when clicked, installs a program to record and report to the sender every keystroke you make—bank account information, Social Security numbers, passwords, etc.

These two scams can appear to come from any software company—and not just through email. You might receive a popup while browsing the Internet with similar instructions and a link to malware.

4. Work From Home Scams

Talk about an equal opportunity employer—this scam targets everyone—college kids, retirees, work-at-home moms and dads and the self-employed. The fraudsters use two methods—push and pull: They will email you, or you will respond to an ad. Either way, the result is the same. There are two variations on the money chase:

  • Direct deposit – Once you turn over your bank information, it’s out there. Unless you’ve done your homework and you know you’re working with a  credible organization, never give out your bank information. Insist on payment through PayPal or other third-party processor.
    • Paid by check – You receive a check for more than you’re supposed to receive, and you’re directed to return the overage. Your bank “pre-clears” the check. When the bank discovers the check is a counterfeit, it comes after the person most likely to cough up the dough—unfortunately that’s you.

    5. Craigslist Buyer Scams

    The Craigslist buyer scam is a spin on the “Work From Home” scam. The only difference is that you’re the seller instead of the email recipient. The buyer sends a counterfeit check in an amount greater than the sale price and asks you to refund the difference.

    Staying Safe in a 24/7-Connected World

    1. Delete any message from yourself without opening it. It’s called spoofing. Just like the crooks can spoof your phone number (that’ll shock you the first time it happens), they can also spoof your email address.
    2. Never open an unexpected attachment. It could be a malicious program or child pornography—good luck explaining that in court.
    3. If you receive an official-looking email, check the address [@company name] against the name of the company. Don’t open it unless it matches.
    4. If there’s a link in an email, hover your mouse over it before clicking it. If the URL isn’t a site you recognize, don’t open it.
    5. When you spot syntax errors and multiple misspellings (not to be confused with text-message speak from your kids), delete the email.
    6. When you receive an official-looking email without a proper salutation, delete it.
    7. Visit the Federal Trade Commission when in doubt and/or sign up to receive scam alerts by email.

    Identity theft can haunt you the rest of your life; so can losing your life’s savings. From college kids to senior citizens, to small-business owners, we’ve all got a bullseye on our backs. Help spread the word to everyone you know, especially to senior citizens. If you’ve been caught in an Internet scam, and who hasn’t, please share the details. For a moment of embarrassment, you could save someone from a lifetime of misery.