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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Common Spam Scams

Along with spam advertisements hawking prescription medicines, 'cheap' mortgage rates and online gambling sites, there are a number of common scams whose sole goal is to separate you from your money.

One well-known example, circulating for years now, is the Nigerian bank scam. The sender, allegedly the wife or relative of a former dictator or government official (usually in Nigeria, hence the name) tells the sad story of how millions were deposited in a bank account which is no longer accessible. In exchange for your help, they're willing to share this wealth - for a few mere thousands from your bank account for 'expenses'. As ludicrous as it seems, people fall for this every year. In one well-publicized case an elderly Czech man who had lost his life savings to this scam shot the Nigerian consul in Prague.

Some Internet scams offer investment opportunities with huge paybacks. They usually claim to be risk-free, but once they have your money, you're very unlikely to see any return. Another common scam involves offering credit cards for those with bad credit ratings - just send a security deposit and processing fees. In return you get - that's right - nothing. And by the time you start to investigate, the scam artist has disappeared.

Then there are the multilevel marketing schemes (MLMs), urging you to buy large quantities of the 'latest new product' - which you can resell for an easy profit while receiving a commission on each sale from the greater fool down the line. Once you've bought the merchandise, however, the distributor will have disappeared - sometimes without even sending the goods.

Remember these offers are worse than even ordinary spam. Legitimate businesses do not promote their products by spamming. They e-mail selected groups, generally those who have purchased from them before or voluntarily offered an e-mail address. Other offers should usually be ignored. Simply hit your delete button. However, even highlighting the e-mail in order to delete it can signal a spammer that you received one. To fight that, see the article 'Fighting Spam' in this series.

Never reply to spam. Doing so simply indicates to the spammer that your e-mail address is valid, and you'll receive more spam than before. Some spam contains a message offering to remove your e-mail address from their mailing list. Don't use even this service - it's nothing but another method for verifying e-mail addresses.

Above all, never give your credit card number, bank account details or private data to anyone unknown over the Internet. PayPal, for example, and other legitimate online businesses will never ask for your password in an email. One common scam is to fake return addresses and tailor subject lines and content so the message appears to be from them or another financial institution 'confirming' your information. Don't fall for them.

How do you know whether it's spam? Since, one man's spam is sometimes another's welcomed advertisement, there's no perfect answer. But there is one good rule of thumb: if you don't recognize the sender, it's probably not someone you want to hear from. After all, how many former dictators in Nigeria are you likely to know?