Spam email fraud occurs when a criminal uses a mass email to try to cheat people across the country or even across the world.
By sending out thousands or even millions of emails, there is a decent chance that the criminal will trick a small percentage of recipients into buying a fake product, order a product that will never be delivered, advance money based on the promise of receiving a huge amount of money or lottery winnings, or providing them with account information for a bank, credit card, or online service that the criminal will use to make fraudulent purchases or to commit identity theft.
This list of common forms of email fraud is far from exhaustive - there are many types of fraud, most of which can be perpetrated through email.
Common forms of fraud include:
Identity Theft (Phishing)
Identity fraud involves enticing you to provide personal information: your address, date of birth, social security number, bank account information, PayPal or eBay passwords, or other similar details that enable the person to access your accounts to steal your money, or to set up fake credit accounts in your name. It is very frequent for this type of fraud to involve requests for passwords for eBay, PayPal or Amazon accounts, or for credit card account information.
Dear eBay member, As part of our continuing commitment to protect your account and to reduce the instance of fraud on our website, we are undertaking a period review of our member accounts.
You are requested to visit our site by following the link given below [Link to What Appears to be an eBay Page] Please fill in the required information. This is required for us to continue to offer you a safe and risk free environment to send and receive money online, and maintain the eBay Experience.
Thank you, Accounts Management
The email address is designed to make the request look authentic, and the message may look very genuine and include corporate graphics. But no reputable company will send you this type of email message.
- If you follow the link and look carefully at the URL in your browser, you will discover that you are not on the server of the company that supposedly sent you the email.
- If you fill out the form on that page, you will provide your account name and password to a criminal.
If you believe that an email notice of this nature that you receive may be real, don't follow the link in the email. Instead, go directly to the real company website (e.g., citibank.com or ebay.com) and log into your account. If there is any problem with your account, you will be able to resolve it directly on the company's official website without the risk of identity theft.
There are two types of fake products scams:
Products With Little to No Value: The vendor intends to sell you a product, but the product has no value. For example, you might get an email offering to sell a "male enhancement patch" or "miracle diet pill". If you place your order, you may well receive patches or pills, but they won't do anything.
Products That are Never Delivered: You order a product and send your money, but receive nothing in return.
In a worst-case scenario the scammers not only charge you for the undelivered merchandise, they also steal your credit card information and use it to make purchases using your name and credit card number.
Advance Fee Fraud (419 Scams)
In an advance fee fraud case, a criminal sends out thousands of spam emails offering cash - for example, promising a percentage of an enormous sum of money that supposedly can't be removed from their nation, or money that is supposedly the estate of somebody who shares your surname - hoping that an unsuspecting soul will reply. This type of scam is called advance fee fraud, because the criminal entices you to pay a fee up front to cover fictitious expenses.
Once contact is made, and it appears that the response is from somebody who may fall for the scam, the criminal will repeatedly make promises to send the promised cash, but problem after problem will arise. The criminal will swear that the problems can only be resolved if the target sends them money to pay certain fees or to bribe various officials.
Despite the criminal's promises of riches, you never get a cent in return. For more information on advance fee email fraud, please see this article.
You are informed that you are the winner of a lottery, or can receive some portion of an unclaimed lottery award. All you have to do is pay a fee, provide your bank account information, or both and... the criminal will walk away with your money, never to be heard from again.
Sample Lottery Fraud Letter
Subject: FINAL AWARD WINNING NOTIFICATION Sweeps Take Loteria (Loteria Primitiva de España) Calle San Marcos 240-2 280004 Madrid, Spain.
FROM: The Desk of the Managing Director International Promotion Prize Award Dept
Ref LP523275/2003/ES BATCH:02033/1PD
RE: Final award winning notification.
We are pleased to inform you about the release today the 30th of june 2004 of sweepstake Loteria Primitiva de España held on the 24th may 2004, your name attached to ticket number: 524- 412-56-ES, with serial number 4253/03 drew the lucky number:75-23-58-46-51, which consequently won the lottery in the 3rd category. You have therefore been approved for a lump sum pay out of €500,000.00 euros (five hundred thousand euros) in cash credited to file:lp523275/2003/es. This form is from a total cash prize of €2 million euros share! among the four international lucky winners in this category.
Due to mixed up of some numbers and names, we ask that you keep this top secret from the public notice until your claim has been processed and your money remmitted to your account as this is part of security protocols to avoid double claiming or unwarranted taking advantage of this programs by participant.
To begin your claim, please contact your prize claims agent : Dr. Antonio Davids by telephone +34 679 323 025, e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org, for the processing and remittance of your funds to a designated account of your choice. Endeavor to include your full recent contact address, telephone number/fax numbers and your bank account details where you want this fund to be remitted to you.
Note: In order to avoid unnecessary delays and complications, please remember to quote your reference and batch numbers in very correspondence with your prize claim agent. Furthermore, should there be any change of your address, do inform us as soon as possible. Congratulations again from all members of our staff and thank you being part of our promotional programs.
Best regards, Mrs. Sonia Lopez
Chain Letters and Pyramid Schemes
As with pyramid scheme chain letters that used to come by regular mail, you are invited by email to participate in a multi-level scheme whereby you send money or gifts to, or buy items from, a list of strangers. Once you have satisfied your obligation, you are assured that you will receive similar gifts or a business profits.
- In most cases, you won't receive a thing.
- In virtually all of the others, you will receive at most a small fraction of what you pay into the scheme.
Worse, these schemes are almost always illegal, and you may end up having to explain to the legal authorities why you were participating in a fraud, potentially face criminal charges, and be required to return any money that you receive.
Promises of Inheritance
You are contacted by a person claiming to be a foreign lawyer, barrister, or administrator for an estate. You are told that an heir must be contacted, sometimes within days, or a multi-million dollar estate will revert to the government. You are asked to provide proof of identity, and possibly for banking information, and likely also for "fees" necessary to effect the transfer of the money to you.
If you respond and share information, the criminals obtain your money, information necessary to empty your bank account or obtain credit in your name, or both.
For more information on inheritance fraud, please see this associated article.
Asking for Money from a Hacked Email Account
You receive a desperate email from a friend or family member who has an emergency - they're stuck in a foreign country after an accident, robbery, the loss of a passport, or similar problem, and need you to wire them some money immediately.
Except if you investigate you'll find that they're at home, safe and well, and that somebody has hacked their email account and sent a fake email to everybody in their contact list to try to trick people into sending money.
Unfortunately, no matter how careful you are with your email address you are almost certain to receive spam email. Once you start to receive spam at a specific email address, you will typically end up receiving increasing amounts of spam at that address no matter what you do.
Your best option is to use a robust spam filter. Fortunately, most major email providers incorporate strong filters for spam, and many will flag suspicious emails as potentially being fraudulent. Please review this article about the problem of spam email, and possible steps to avoid it.