You may already be a winner. But, not if you go through your spam folder, responding to everyone who offers you money. Fraud is one of the most dynamic online "industries," continuously changing to keep pace with an ever-more-skeptical population. According to a report from the National Consumers League, in the late 1990s, when the internet was still in its nascence, the most common way to steal money online was to sell services and never deliver them. Today's scammers are more indirect, if just as diabolical. (To protect yourself from scams, read Stop Scams In Their Tracks.)
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It's impossible to determine the most successful online scams in history, largely because their perpetrators don't exactly offer detailed records. But, judging from the duped marks who go public without fear of being shamed any further, the most successful online scams are small potatoes. They include eBay transactions, in which a buyer tries to exchange your new item for an inferior item, and bogus PayPal chargebacks. (Buyer claims the item was not as delivered, petitions their credit card issuer, and figures you won't bother to dispute it.) Even on Craigslist, where people routinely list what they own and where they live, the number of thefts is minuscule compared to the number of transactions.
Like their street counterparts, internet thieves steal lots of small amounts, rather than a few large ones. Virtually no one has had their life's savings stolen online.
But, as people get more sophisticated, scammers have to get more resourceful. The latest genius efforts combine all the elements you'd need to keep things somewhat plausible:
They Don't Request a Grandiose Amount of Money
The number of people who will be duped by an email telling them they need to pay $5,000 to claim $4.3 million is nonzero, but tiny.
They Don't Impel the Victims to Embrace Pleasure so Much as Encourage Them to Alleviate Pain
While almost no one will send $5,000 to a disembodied solicitation, for a chance at riches, the number of people who will pay $125 to avoid a bogus arrest warrant, or other legal trouble, is larger.
They Play on Legitimate Fears
Even the most absent-minded of us should be able to remember whether we ever crossed paths with the Nigerian Scam, where a prince swears he'll make us wealthy. But, can you attest, without fail, that you didn't speed past a radar camera anytime in the last four months? Hence, the recent New York City "Uniform Traffic Ticket" scam. As scams go, it's fairly ingenious. (To help you identify a scam, see 6 Red Flags Of A Financial Scam.)
It demands only a modest payment. Beyond that, the idea is to get you to click on an attached .exe file, in the hopes that you've made your credit card information accessible. That piece of malware is often festooned with the familiar Adobe PDF icon, making the casual recipient think the file is an innocent document.
The scammers, in this case, show a foreigner's understanding of the United States, figuring that since New York City is the most populous city in the nation, it must have the most drivers. Los Angeles seems like it would have been a more logical choice.
What makes this scam especially insidious is that it's grammatically sound. It's astonishing how few online scammers check for spelling, or put spaces after periods and commas. Or, even use commas in the first place. Not coincidentally, most of the scammers' victims wouldn't know poor grammar and punctuation if they stepped in it. (For more scams to look out for, check out 6 New Credit Scams To Watch Out For.)
In an article like this, it's obligatory for the author to explain how to defend yourself, even though almost all of the measures you can take are just common sense. Here are a couple of relatively non-obvious pieces of advice:
The biggest giveaway, in at least two senses of the term, is an email address with a webmail provider's domain name. You're not going to believe this, but JPMorganChase@hotmail.com is not JPMorgan Chase's customer support address.
Google. That's what it's there for. You're almost certainly not the first person whom "Adada Muhammadu, a crude oil merchant in Nigeria (who has) been diagnosed with Esophageal cancer" has targeted. It takes eight seconds to determine if anyone else has fallen victim to this scam before.
Google the email address, Google the phone number, if any, and you might even find that your fears are unfounded. Last month, I received an email from my state treasurer's unclaimed property division, telling me that it had over $3000 worth of my stuff. I didn't know of such a division, nor that there was any outstanding property with my name on it. In other words, it felt like May Day in Moscow, there were so many red flags.
A quick trip to the state government's website, and presto, problem solved. The "property" in question indeed existed. It was an insurance premium overpayment, and other mundane accounting items. When I filled out the requisite paperwork (and mailed it to a verifiably legitimate address), I couldn't help but wonder how many other people have been so conditioned by skepticism that they immediately deleted the email and lost out.
If you're ever in doubt, about a new scam, check out ic3.gov, the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Despite its 1995-era interface, it's indeed a legitimate site, run by the FBI.
In short, an unknown relative leaving you a fortune is a movie plot, not a real-life occurrence. An unexpected tax refund is slightly more likely, but the IRS isn't going to email you to tell you about it.
The Bottom Line
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