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10 Common Email & Internet Scams – How to Avoid Them

By Jaime A. Heidel

scammerI’ve been using the Internet since 1997, way before the invention of popular social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter. Since then, I’ve seen my fair share of email scams, hoaxes, and other types of cyberspace spam. I’ve even fallen for some of them myself. Chances are, if you haven’t fallen victim to any of these scams, you’ve at least come pretty close.

Cybercrime is a very lucrative business for Internet con artists, and this is why these scams are so prevalent across the web. Thieves are out to steal your money, and if they can’t get you to directly hand over the password to your online bank account, they’ll try to steal your identity or infect your computer with spyware – which, in turn, can be used to procure personal information to access your money.

While there are many ways you can be duped online, you can arm yourself by learning to recognize the most common scams. Keep your guard up, and always keep an eye out for anything that looks suspicious.

Email Scams

Some of the earliest forms of cybercrime were email scams, which continue to this day. Here are five of the most common types:

1. Foreign Lottery Scam

The foreign lottery scam is one of the most common types of email scams, in which you receive what looks like an official email from a foreign lottery corporation. The subject line offers a congratulatory announcement, and may include the supposed amount of money you’ve “won.”

Here are the sure signs your winnings are false:

  • The Sender Is a Person. If the sender is an individual – or is, at least, obviously not an official lottery email – then you know you’ve got a scam on your hands. For example, [email protected] certainly is not going to be the guy to tell you that you’ve won several million dollars.
  • Your Name Is Not in the “To” Field. If your name is not in the “To” section of the email, then this phishing email has likely been sent to thousands of people, all in the hopes of snagging a few bites.
  • The Lottery Doesn’t Exist. Do a simple Google search. Does the lottery even exist? You may find that not only is the lottery fake, but that it’s a well-documented scam.
  • Request for Information. Scammer emails routinely request your full name, date of birth, street address, and telephone number. This is known as a phishing scam, which is designed to get you to reveal sensitive personal information. Once you respond with this information, you’ve been hooked, and may ultimately end up with a stolen identity or, even worse, a drained bank account.

The best way to avoid the common email scam is to realize this one simple rule: If you did not enter the lottery, you will not win the lottery. And even if you do enter the lottery, you probably will not win.

2. Survey Scam

This common email scam looks innocent enough. You’ve expressed interest in social issues, such as global warming or the war in the Middle East, and you’ve been sent a survey that requests your input. Why not participate? Unless you’ve specifically requested to be on a survey mailing list, what you’re getting is nothing but spam.

When you click on the link to take the survey, malicious spyware or malware is installed on your computer. Once this occurs, cybercriminals can spy on every move you make on your computer, collecting passwords, bank account information, and more. Suddenly, you may see thousands of dollars worth of charges on your credit card bill for purchases you never made. This is result of identity theft, and it can ruin your life.

beware of phishing scams

3. PayPal or Online Credit Card/Banking Scam

This one got me several years ago, and it was incredibly irritating. At first, you may really believe there’s something wrong with your PayPal account, as you will receive an email that appears to be from PayPal with a warning message such as, “Act now, or your account will be deactivated,” or “Security breach on your account.” This can cause you to panic, open the email, click the link, and log in to your account.

The problem is that you’re not really on PayPal’s website, but rather a false website designed to look identical to PayPal. You’ve just given your email address and password to your actual PayPal account to a cybercriminal, who can now use that information to change your password and clean you out. They may even use this information to scam your friends and business associates.

Here are some surefire ways to tell if an email supposedly from PayPal is nothing but a scam:

  • The Sender’s Email Address Is Suspicious. Just because the sender’s name is “PayPal Security Center” does not make it legitimate. An address such as “[email protected]” is a dead giveaway that you’re being taken for a ride. PayPal only sends emails from addresses that end in “@paypal.com.”
  • They Don’t Know Who You Are. Whether it’s PayPal or your credit card company, if you do business with them, they know your name and will use every opportunity to use it. Any correspondence beginning with “Dear valued customer” is a scam.
  • The Linked URL Is Not Legitimate. Hover your mouse over the “click here” or “take action now” link, and if you see a strange URL that does not take you to PayPal.com, don’t click.
  • The Email Includes a Threat. This is how they got me. I was told that there was a security breach on my account, and if I didn’t take the actions recommended in the email, my account would be temporarily suspended. I clicked on the link and input my email address, password, and account information. Thankfully, shortly thereafter, I was tipped off and was able to call and cancel my account.

Remember, no legitimate company will ever threaten to close your account if you ignore an email.

4. Mystery Shopper Scam

The secret shopper (or mystery shopper) scam has several different variations, but all are designed to steal your money, your information, or both. This common work-from-home scam attempts to suck you in with an email featuring a subject line promising you a large income, simply by working as a mystery shopper. You need no experience or education, and you can make up to $200 to $300 a day doing just what you love: shopping! Sounds too good to be true, right?

It is indeed. Instead of being paid to shop, here are the two ways in which you can be swindled:

  • You Have to Pay Upfront. The money looks good, but in order to get your “training materials,” you must send the company money via PayPal or with a personal check. You send the money and wait for a package that never arrives.
  • You Receive a Fraudulent Check. This one is even worse. You provide the false company your address, and are sent a fraudulent check in the mail as your first payment. However, you are requested to send some of the money back to cover your study materials. You cash the check, wire the requested amount of money, and then discover that the check you deposited has bounced. You’re responsible for $1,000 or more worth of fraudulent check charges, plus overdraft fees.

If you didn’t apply for a job, you won’t be offered a job. They don’t just fall out of the sky. Furthermore, if you’re ever asked to spend money upfront for materials, you are likely being scammed.

5. Nigerian Check Scam

Another one of the more common email scams is the Nigerian check scam. If you are subject to this scam, you receive an email from an a royal-sounding person with the name of “Sir Arthur Von-Monsoon,” or “Barrister Frank N. Stein” with a request to help recover large sums of money from an overseas bank. As a reward, you’ll receive a handsome cut of the cash. Nice, huh?

Unfortunately, there’s always a catch. It seems like a win-win situation, so you respond with your willingness to help. You are told the money will be transferred to your bank account; therefore, you must provide your bank account information. Also, there are transfer fees involved, and you have to pay those as well. Once you pay a couple hundred dollars, waiting for your huge windfall, you receive another email stating there has been some type of holdup, and you must send a bit more cash.

This continues until you, the unsuspecting victim, realize that money is only going one way: out of your bank account.

always think twice before pulling out your credit card

Social Networking Scams

Thanks to social networking sites, you can connect with friends, relatives, and even celebrities all over the world. The problem? You can also connect with a wide variety of cybercriminals who specialize in online hoaxes.

Here is a short list of the most common types of social networking scams:

6. Hijacked Profile Scam

Recently, a girl I’d gone to high school with suddenly sent me a message on Facebook that said, “Hey girl, if you get some time, will you give me a call?”

I was immediately suspicious. We’re nothing more than mere acquaintances, and we’ve never once spoken on the phone. Though I figured her Facebook account had been hacked, I messaged her back and told her I couldn’t make long-distance phone calls. She responded by saying she had this wonderful business opportunity for me to get in on, and sent me a couple of links.

At this point, I knew it was a scam. Her profile had obviously been hacked, but the scammer was attempting to be clever by using personal details in our conversation, such as where we went to school. I ended up deleting her from my friend’s list because I couldn’t get a hold of her to tell her she’d been hacked.

You should also be wary of requests for money from friends – especially because these hoaxes can seem very real. Say you have a friend who travels often and posts pictures and updates about his various exploits. Suddenly, he sends you an urgent message claiming to be stuck somewhere overseas and needs some money to get home. Before you send any, try to contact him another way. He could be the victim of a hacked account.

7. Quiz Scam

It may be in your best interests to delete all app requests, and never take social networking quizzes. Turns out those “Which Twilight Character Are You?” quizzes could end up costing you a monthly charge.

It starts out innocently enough: You see the quiz on your friend’s profile, click on it, and enter your cell phone number as instructed. The quiz pops up, you take it and find out you’re more an Alice than a Bella, and promptly post it on your profile for all of your friends to see and participate in.

When next month rolls around, you’re shocked to learn that a $9.95 fee has been added to your cell phone bill for some dubious “monthly service.” Remember that the quiz asked you for your cell phone number in order for you to take it? You were so anxious to get the results that you didn’t even stop to wonder why they wanted it. Now you know.

8. Suspicious Photo Scam

This is one of the most common ways online con artists obtain login information to hijack an account. One of your friends, whose account has been hacked, posts a link on your page with a message such as, “OMG! Is this a naked picture of you?”

This causes you to panic and you click the link, only to find yourself back at the Facebook login page. You figure it’s just one of Facebook’s many glitches and login again.

By doing this, you’ve just disclosed your Facebook (or Twitter) account login information. Now, some cybercriminal is out there using your profile to attempt to scam your friends.

If you see a suspicious link, simply delete it and send a message via email or text message to your friend to warn them they’ve been hacked.

9. Hidden URL Scam

As a regular Twitter user, I always use TinyURL.com to shorten my links. Plenty of legitimate businesspeople do this to get around Twitter’s character limit. However, when clicking links, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

When you receive a new follower on Twitter, check out their previous updates. Do they all look like spam? Do they follow thousands of people, yet have few followers of their own? Is their profile picture worthy of a Victoria Secret or Maxim catalog cover? If this is the case, beware. Clicking on their links could take you to a website where spyware or malware might be downloaded onto your computer without your knowledge.

10. Sick Baby Scam

This one is sick alright. The sick baby scam works like this: A “friend” posts a photograph of an ill baby or young child with a caption beneath it that reads, “Little Jimmy has cancer. Click this link to donate $1 to help him and his family. Every little bit counts!”

Your heart goes out to this helpless little baby, and you click on the link, whip out your bank card, and donate some money. What you don’t realize is that the money isn’t going to help some dying child – it’s going straight to the bank account of a con artist.

Also, remember that shares don’t equal donations. Often, instead of sending money to help the “sick baby,” you’re asked to share the photo with everyone you know because each share supposedly earns $0.05. However, Facebook, nor any social networking website, will donate money based on how many times something is shared. This is almost always an attempt to phish for personal information.

watch out for cyber criminals

How to Avoid Common Scams Online

Whether it’s an email scam or a social networking scam, there are some dead giveaways when it comes to recognizing them before they get you. Here are five ways to avoid common scams:

  1. Delete Unsolicited Emails. One of the best ways to avoid email scams is to delete unsolicited emails. Legitimate companies will never send you pertinent information by email.
  2. Don’t Believe Promises of Money or Prizes. Any email or social networking link that promises free money or prizes should be dismissed, as these are almost always scams.
  3. Question Requests for Donations. Whenever there’s a national disaster, con artists have a field day sending bogus requests for donations. Instead of donating through email to an unknown charity, give to legitimate charities, such as the Red Cross.
  4. Never Disclose Sensitive Personal Information. Any person who sends you an email asking for sensitive information, such as your bank account number or Social Security number, is up to no good. No matter what they promise you, mark the email as spam and move on.
  5. Hover Before You Click. Whenever you receive an unsolicited email asking you to “click here,” beware – even if it sounds like a legitimate company. The same goes for social networking links that take you to what appear to be login pages. These may be, in fact, sites designed to steal your information.

Final Word

If you’ve fallen for any of these online scams, you’re certainly not alone. Online con artists are very clever, using underhanded methods to get information and money from unsuspecting people. However, you can protect your identity and your money by arming yourself with knowledge – as well as warning your children and elderly relatives – and avoid falling prey to scammers.

Have you ever been the victim of an online scam? What did you do about it?

(photo credit: Bigstock)

Jaime A. Heidel
Jaime A. Heidel is a Connecticut native who recently moved to North Carolina. She's a published fiction writer who has recently made her way into the non-fiction and blogging world. She has a passion for natural health, career advice, and frugal financing. When she's not writing, she enjoys hiking, reading, and playing The Sims, which after years of refusing to play video games, she's become addicted to. Her holistic health website, I Told You I Was Sick, is dedicated to helping those suffering with mystery symptoms find natural ways to heal.

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  • http://www.oddcents.com/ Dannielle @ Odd Cents

    Great article. Why don’t these criminals use their brains for something positive? Someone sent me an email saying that this guy (who up to this day I’m not sure how I got his email address) lost his passport and all of his money and he needed me to send him some money. I realised that it was fake so I told “him” that I have a cousin who is a police and that he should contact him. That was the end of that conversation.

  • http://www.cpastudyguides.com/ Kris

    The best way to protect yourself is really to use common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you didn’t earn it, why would anyone give it to you? I know that some of them sound so tempting, but there are no “free lunches” these days.

  • Michael

    If you use Gmail, there’s a great Labs add-on that lets you know if an email is from a Verified Sender (e.g. PayPal)–helps avoid phishing scams.

  • http://pftoday.com/ Michael @ pftoday.com

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Frankania

    I have often written down the phone numbers that various scammers include then I use those numbers , & state, “yes, I am interested in your request; please call me at ……………

  • Guest

    An addition to your tip about foreign lottery scams. It is illegal for U.S. citizens to take delivery of funds from most of the countries these lotteries are supposedly located in as they are none too friendly with our government or citizens.

  • prank hoax

    All are quality tips that are useful for avoiding scams… yet people should also be self awared so that they doesn’t become the victim of any of the fake or spam messages or anything related to internet scams… a nice post..

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