August 24, 2010, 9:07 AM — Think only the pathetically credulous and the uneducated fall victim to outrageous e-mail scams? Don't believe it.
In 2001, a Massachusetts psychotherapist named John W. Worley clicked on an email purportedly from Captain Joshua Mbote from, you guessed it, Nigeria. As recounted in theNew Yorker, Worley soon found himself in the grip of the classic "Nigerian Prince" scam, a terrible mistake that ultimately cost him more than $40,000. Even worse, Worley, not the con artists, was convicted of bank fraud and money laundering related to bogus checks sent to him as part of the scheme.
Nine years later, variations of that scam and other e-mail and Internet cons designed to trick you out of your money and sometimes your identity, are all over the Internet. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 216,000 complaints from individuals who had been scammed via email and another 55,000 from victims of scams that began on the Web.
[ For more on new security traps, see CIO.com's "10 Tips for Safer Browsing: Supercookies and New Dangers". ]
Although many of the come-ons that clog your e-mail box are transparently ridiculous, their sophistication has grown. You've probably seen invitations to work at home for big bucks or to become a secret shopper. While many of us would never send upfront money to someone we don't know, the secret shopper artists now offer to give you the money to buy stuff.
Their checks even clear and the funds appear in your bank account. Before long, there's a reason to send money to your sponsor. But then the banks involved discover that the checks were fraudulent and take back the money. At that point, you're out of luck and out whatever money you sent.
A variation on that ploy is the check over-payment scam, one of 10 highlighted by the FTC on its OnGuard Online site. It works like this: You sell something on line and the buyer offers to pay with a check. At the last minute, the so-called buyer (or the buyer's "agent") comes up with a reason for writing the check for more than the purchase price, and asks you to wire back the difference after you deposit the check. As in the secret shopper scam, the check clears but ultimately is counterfeit and you're stuck repaying the bank.
Scammers frequently update their ploys to take advantage of events capturing the public's attention. I recently got a very nice note from BP (not really) notifying me of $450,000 in compensation related to the Gulf oil spill. Never mind that I live nearly 2000 miles from New Orleans. I'm not sure how the scam actually works, but since they wanted me to reply with a scanned copy of my passport, I'd guess that identity theft is involved.