Spotting Spam Scams - dummies

By John R. Levine, Margaret Levine Young, Ray Everett-Church

One of the few things you can count on when you get spammed is that whatever it claims to be offering, it’s not for real. Check out the following greatest hits in spam scams.

Help steal millions from an African country

Probably the best-developed spam scam is the 419 scam, named after the section of Nigerian law that makes it illegal. You receive an urgent message, most often from Nigeria, but sometimes from other countries in Africa or occasionally elsewhere. Your correspondent urgently needs your help to spirit away millions of dollars that are tied up in an account belonging to a deceased general or a crooked official at the national oil company. You will be well rewarded with a large percentage of the take.

What’s going on? Well, before you can get your hands on the loot, a few details need to be worked out, officials need to be bribed, marker dye must be washed off the cash, and you need to send only a small advance to get things going. Obviously, the millions are a fantasy, and if you’re so foolish as to send the advance, that’s the last you ever see of your money. What’s astonishing is that people fall for this scam all the time, with individual losses up to hundreds of thousands of dollars and a total annual take in the billions, making it one of the largest industries in Nigeria. People occasionally go to Nigeria to try to recover their money. The lucky ones come back broke but alive. Some don’t come back at all.

Although this advance fee scam has been perfected in the modern era in Nigeria, in its earlier form it was known as the Spanish prisoner, with the story that a rich nobleman was in prison in Spain and if you would front the money to bribe his way home, he would repay you tenfold and his beautiful daughter would show her appreciation. (For suckers with morals, an alternative version promised her hand in marriage.) This scam has been traced back to the 1500s, telling us that neither greed, nor gullibility, is a recent invention.

Make lots of money with no work

Just call this toll-free number and you’re on the road to riches. Or, more likely, to the poorhouse. The Federal Trade Commission says that these scams usually turn out to be illegal pyramid schemes, a well-known and completely illegal type of scam. The nature of pyramid schemes is to vacuum money upward from the suckers at the bottom of the pyramid toward the crooks at the top who started it. Needless to say, you start at the bottom.

Other versions are envelope-stuffing schemes (where the envelopes you stuff are full of more ads to even more suckers offering to sell them the same envelope-stuffing scam) or spam telling you that you can make tons of money if you buy the spammer’s guaranteed path to riches by sending even more spam (which, of course, is the same spam you’re supposed to sell to another generation of suckers).

You’ve won a free vacation

Wow, you’ve won a free vacation to Disney World or the Bahamas! Let’s go! Well, you may have to pay a modest charge for postage and handling, only slightly more than what the plane tickets would normally cost. And the hotel is a dump, if it even exists, and before you can check in, you have to sit through a high-pressure time-share sales presentation. And rooms are available only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in November.

Verify your account — Not!

Your ISP sends you an e-mail message saying that it’s having a problem with your credit card, so for verification purposes please fill out a form with your account name, password, address, card number, and expiration date. Or, maybe the message comes from a familiar commerce site, like eBay or

Real ISPs and Web sites never, ever, send mail like this. In the unlikely event that one of them has a problem with your credit card, someone there may send you a paper letter and ask you to call. The spam, some of which uses extremely authentic-looking graphics (swiped from the real Web site, natch!), sends your info back to the spammer, who then verifies your credit card by buying a whole bunch of stuff and charging it to you.

This scam — pretending to be someone with whom you do business to steal your account info or credit card details — is known to aficionados as phishing. Don’t take the bait.

Repair your bad credit

This scam comes in a variety of versions: Clean up your credit report or get a brand-new credit report, get a guaranteed credit card, or otherwise cast aside the burden of bad debt. In its simplest form, you pay someone to do the whammy on your credit report and that person takes your money and disappears. Or, someone may tell you to get a business ID number from the IRS and use that number rather than your Social Security number to apply for credit, a clever idea that fools credit issuers and credit bureaus for, oh, the better part of three seconds.

The credit card may be a secured card for which you pay a $500 cash deposit and get a card with a high annual fee, a higher interest rate, and a $350 credit limit, which kind of stretches the definition of credit. Or, someone offers you a “gold card,” good only for buying overpriced junk from their own catalog.

Get drugs without a prescription, cheap

Need Vicodin, Vioxx, Propecia, human growth hormone, or (how did humankind ever live without it?) Viagra? No problem — we have whatever you need. No prescription? No problem! We have unethical doctors who can write you a prescription sight unseen, or we can just skip that step and ship it to you, maybe from our Canadian supplier or from a shipment that fell off a truck in Pakistan, or we may just compress talcum powder into pill shapes.

What’s the hitch? Surely you don’t think that if you send these guys money, they send you real prescription drugs that normally cost anywhere from $10 to $100 a dose, even in foreign countries. What can you do if they don’t? You can hardly call the cops and complain, “I sent them money to buy drugs illegally without a prescription, but all they sent me was a bottle full of wood shavings from a hamster cage”?