Five messages to never trust in your e-mail box

I love Dr. Gregory House. As a journalist, I can really appreciate his view that "Everybody lies." That may be too cynical for most people, but when it comes to dealing with your e-mail I'm not sure it's possible to be cynical enough.

Every day, and I mean every day, I get not only spam messages, but notes trying to trick me into going to a site that will infect my Windows PC with malware or con me into giving up my bank account or credit-card numbers. You simply can't trust anything you find in your e-mail box.

Here are some of the most common scams. Many of you might think, "How could anyone fall for these?" The sad truth is that people fall for them every day. That's why thieves use them. If you already know them, think about your friends and relatives who aren't as smart as you are and send the URL to this story to them. You might save them a lot of money or, at the least, a busted computer.

1) Money for Nothing. To knock off the obvious first, no one is going to send you a million dollars. Sorry, it's not going to happen. And, if by some weird chance, an unknown relative does die and leave you some cash, they're not going to let you know about it by an e-mail.

On a personal note, my dad really is dying of esophageal cancer, and I'm getting sick and tired of fraudsters trying to steal money by using this particular ailment. Oh, and by the way, if he did have a million dollars, he'd be spending it on medical care.

2) Phishing. Who hasn't got a message that purports to be from your bank or credit-card company saying that-Oh No!--something has happened to your account and that you have to login at the Web address below to set things right.

Oh yeah, sure it has. First, if something does go wrong with yo ur online financial account, chances are they're not going to let you know about it. For example, after Albert Gonzalez, swiped millions from TJX and Heartland Payment Systems, the 130-million credit card users who had their information stolen found out about it the old-fashioned way: by postal mail.

Never, and I mean never, respond to any e-mail telling you that one of your account is in trouble and that you need to login to the supplied link in the message. The chances are 99.9999% you're being set-up to be robbed.

3) Spear-phishing. Phishing, rhymes with fishing, is pretty easy to spot once you know what you're looking for. Spear-phishing attacks, in which the messages look like they're coming from a friend or it sounds like the writer actually knows something about you, are harder to spot. In the first place, they may appear harmless. Facebook, for example, has been used several times for such attacks.

To spot these, I find it always helpful to simply ask why someone, or some site would, need my Facebook, Twitter, or what-have-you password? If you can't think of a good, concrete reason, chances are, it's an attempt to steal information from you. Always keep in mind that just because a message looks like it's coming from a friend, doesn't mean that it's actually coming from anything except a hacked Windows PC loaded with data from a social network.

4) Pills, porn and poker, the 3 Ps of spam. Not every bad message you get may be trying to steal from you or infect your PC. Some, like the infamous pills, porn and poker that makes up a large percentage of spam, may be sort of legitimate offers. If that is, you want cut-rate Viagra, photos of Dolly and her donkey, or to lose money with online poker.

If you really want to indulge in any of this, though, might I suggest that you might be better off doing a Google search for what ever floats your boat rather than letting spam guide you to a site featuring porn starlets playing poker with Viagra-inspired actors? If it is legit, you're just encouraging spammers. But, there's also an excellent chance that any site a spam message sends you to may steal your credit-card number as well.

To this, I have to add that lately, in these bad times, there have been a lot more spam about working from home. I think I dislike this kind of spam the most of all. People are hurting, people need work, and here these jerks are trying to con people with hope that here's a way to make some money. Don't believe them. You can make money working from home. It's what I do. But, there is no easy, magic formula that anyone can send you for $19.95 over e-mail that will make it happen.

5) Lie, liars, and chain-mail messages. Unlike the other e-mail dangers I've mentioned, chain-e-mails don't tend to be after your personal information or your money. Instead, they're after your mind. These tend to misrepresent causes, well-known people or history by revealing some 'secret' information. But, as the title of a FactCheck story puts it, "That Chain E-mail Your Friend Sent to You Is (Likely) Bogus. Seriously."

They've got that right. Most such chain-mail letters are filled with lies. For example, a very popular one right now concerns House health care bill, HR 3200. It makes 48 claims about the bill, and, according to FactCheck, "The list of 48 assertions is filled with falsehoods, exaggerations and misinterpretations. We examined each of the e-mail's claims, finding 26 of them to be false and 18 to be misleading, only partly true or half true. Only four are accurate."

That's slight over 8% accuracy rate is actually pretty high by chain mail standards. So, before you get all excited about any 'news' from a chain-mail, first check to make sure that you, or your friends aren't being tricked. Two handy sites for quick fact-checking are Snopes and Urban Legends.

So it is that when it comes to checking my e-mail box, I find myself more than a little suspicious of pretty much every message I get that's not from a friend or co-worker-and I'm none too sure of those sometimes! Still, when I consider that during the time it took me to write this story, I received--after spam-filtering!--two money for nothing spams; a phishing attack from a bank I don't use; an ad for cheap Xanax, and the aforementioned HR 3200 chain-mail, I think I'm right to be so paranoid about e-mail. After all, just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get me!

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