Scammers and con artists have been around since the beginning of time, and email is just a modern vehicle for them to dupe their victims. Most email scams will ask you to send money, cash checks, provide information or establish business relationships. It’s important to know how to recognize common email scams so that you don’t fall into their trap.
1. Check-cashing schemes
In this type of email scam, the sender wants you to cash a check and, in return, allows you to keep a portion of the money. The email may say, "I will send a check made payable to you in the amount of $5,000. All you have to do is deposit it. In return for doing this, you can keep $500 and wire $4,500 back to me."
This scam is usually promoted through emails but may also be found on job listing sites. Often, the original check and the scam artist are from overseas.
The check may look real, and the offer can be tempting. In reality, though, there is no checking account, or the account has insufficient funds to cover the check. Because of the way check clearing works, funds may be available to be transferred before the incoming check actually clears. In this scam, the victim wires the money to the thief, and a couple of days later the victim receives word that the check has bounced. The result is a loss of $5,000.
2. Refund scams
Refund scams can take many forms but usually involve an email stating that you have a refund owed to you. Before the refund can be given to you, though, the email asks you to provide information to speed the processing of the refund. The email may claim to represent the IRS, state tax officials or a well-known business.
The email typically provides a link to a website that may look legitimate but is, in fact, a spoof. Once there, you’ll be asked to provide some personal information, such as your Social Security number, credit card number or account information, “so the refund can be directly deposited.”
Providing this information is dangerous. Once in the hands of a fraudster, it can lead to credit card fraud, unauthorized access to your financial accounts or identity theft.
The IRS and most state taxing authorities don't use email for refund communications. Businesses and retailers may use email, but be careful. Before providing information via email to get your refund, contact the business or retailer by phone to make sure it’s legitimate.
3. Financial account confirmation scams
Emails that request sensitive information are often called phishing emails. A common phishing example is an email that appears to be from your bank, asking you to confirm your account information by email. Reasons for the request include "system upgrades" and "enhanced Internet security initiatives."
The email may include a link to a website that may look legitimate—but it’s fraudulent. The website link may ask for your account numbers, user names, passwords or other confidential information. All of this information is dangerous in the hands of scam artists. Your bank or other trusted source will never ask you to confirm this type of information in an email or email link.
4. Nigerian letter scam
This scam has duped many victims because it promises fast cash. Also known as an "advance-fee" or "419" scam, the locations have changed over time (it’s not always from Nigeria), but the concept remains the same.
Here's how it works: The email starts off by saying a wealthy individual in another country has died and left a large amount of money that's available to be transferred. For example, the email may say something like: "To release funds, we are looking for an overseas partner into whose account we would transfer the sum of $21 MIL. We have agreed to share 1.2% with the account holder."
Over time, the sender may ask for additional funds to cover taxes and legal fees that they say will be reimbursed once the funds are transferred. The sender may even encourage travel to the country in question to complete the transaction.
If you have lost money to one of these schemes, contact your local US Secret Service field office.
5. Lottery winnings scam
Another scam that promises fast cash, the lottery email scam appeals to a person’s sense of being lucky. An email will arrive notifying you that you’ve won a lottery. The email may even mention a legitimate lottery organization. The email typically asks you to keep the winnings a secret for now, asking you to contact a claims agent (or some other official-sounding person) to claim your winnings. Once those conversations start, the “claims agent” will ask for funds to cover taxes, legal fees or other processing costs before you can obtain your winnings. However, legitimate lottery organizations don't charge fees before you can claim your money.
It’s important to educate yourself on email scams and how to spot them in case one hits your inbox. To learn more, check out this article on how to recognize phishing emails.
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