HELPFUL TIPS: E-Mail Scams

by Melinda Hunt

E-mail scams are a fact of modern life. There have always been con artists trying to trick other people out of their money, and the Internet allows them to do it on a mass scale. Even though most people know about e-mail scams, enough people (and smart people!) still get fooled by them to make it worth the scammers’ effort.

As job seekers we are favorite targets. Our e-mail addresses are readily available on job boards and resumes. We are also in the habit of receiving e-mails from people we don’t know, so our guard is sometimes lowered. The scammers know this and see job seekers as vulnerable — a target they can attack.

Classic Scams — Phishing and Spoofing

Everyone is familiar with the basic “phishing” scams — you get an e-mail that looks like it comes your bank or from some large retailer. It tells you there is an urgent problem with your account and asks you to click on a link and log in to correct it. But in reality, the bank e-mail is “spoofed” — it doesn’t really come from your bank. And the link in the e-mail is to a look-alike Web site that is not real. The Web site is really controlled by fraudsters who use the personal information you provide to commit credit card fraud in your name.

Be aware that phishing may become even more prevalent and more credible over the next few months. There was a major breach at Epsilon, one of the big e-mail marketing firms that handle e-mail marketing for many major banks and retailers. The only information that was stolen was e-mail accounts and names, but that is enough information for a fraudster to craft a plausible phishing e-mail.

Classic Scams — Advance Fee Fraud

This is another familiar scam. Someone offers you a lot of money — either because you have won a lottery, or because of a bequest in a will or a distant relative, or because they want your help in committing currency fraud against their home country. If you respond to the e- mail, you’ll find out that there is a fee to pay — a filing fee or a finder’s fee or a bribe. If you pay that fee, there’ll be more and more fees. You’ll never see the money you were promised.

The most common example is the classic “Nigerian Bank Fraud” scam, but it also comes in other forms. In all cases, if a total stranger offers you money, be suspicious.

New Scams — Money Mule Scam

A scam that has really taken off in the current economic climate is the “money mule” scam. It is specifically targeted at job seekers.

You get an e-mail that looks like a legitimate job posting, possibly from a real job site like CareerBuilder, but the details are a little vague. They are typically offering a high salary ($85- $95K) for minimal job requirements (U.S. citizen, checking e-mail multiple times per day, etc.). Sometimes, the name of the company is omitted or is so generic that it’s impossible to get any background information on the company. In other cases, the company listed is a real company, but the job posting is not really from that company. You suspect the job is too good to be true, but don’t know what is really going on.

In many cases these are “money mule” scams. The idea is that the scammer has stolen money they need to get out of the United States. They will send the money to your bank account using an electronic funds transfer (EFT). You will keep 10% and take the other 90% to Western Union or some other service to send to an overseas address as a wire transfer. Everything seems fine for a month or so. Then the real owner of the money recognizes the theft, reports it, and law enforcement gets involved. The EFT into your account is traceable, and the EFT is reversed. All of the money you were sent, not just the 10% you kept, is removed from your account. The wire transfer you sent overseas is not traceable — you will never find the recipient of that money and you will never get that money back. In addition, you’re now being questioned by the police as to how you got involved with money laundering.

Similar scams exist for reshipping products. The stolen products are shipped to you; you repack them and ship them overseas at your own expense and are then reimbursed with a fraudulent check or credit card balance transfer.

Protecting Yourself

  • Scammers play on your hopes and fears. Be aware when an offer seems too good to be true.
  • Don’t hurry — give yourself time to think. Scam e-mails will often tell you that your response is urgent. If you give yourself a moment you will be less likely to be tricked.
  • Don’t click on links in e-mail. Retype a link or use your bank’s usual URL or phone number. Be aware of your bank’s fraud prevention procedures — many major banks have ways to verify if an e-mail really came from them.
  • Educate yourself about Internet security. Two of my favorite sites for non-technical people are:
  • http://www.securingthehuman.org
    This site has a number of paid educational services, but also has a free newsletter called .Ouch!. that is clear, well-written and intended for nontechnical people.
  • http://www.ic3.gov
    This is a government law enforcement site that has many excellent articles on other aspects of computer security. It also has links that allow you to report when you have been the victim of a scam.
  • Use antivirus/antispam software and keep your signatures updated. Antispam won’t ever be 100% right, but it will help.
  • Be cautious with personal information. Information such as bank account numbers, routing numbers, credit card numbers, and social security numbers are very valuable to scammers.
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