Throughout human history, one eternal truth has emerged: where there are hordes of people, there will be scams. Rarely has this been so evident than on the Internet, which offers special advantages (namely lack of face to face contact) to scammers that no other medium can. When the only barrier between your bank account and an unscrupulous con man is a glass monitor or laptop screen, it’s no wonder Internet scams have become one of the largest sources of crime in the young 21st century. Today we will look back on 12 of the top Internet scams of the 2000′s and what makes them so attractive to their targets.
Nigerian 401 Scams
One of the most talked about Internet scams of all is the Nigerian money scam, also known as the Nigerian
401 419 scam for the part of Nigeria’s penal code that prohibits the practice. Essentially, these scams are carried out in the following manner: you (the victim) receive an e-mail from someone claiming to be an exiled dignitary, perhaps a prince or queen who was forced to leave their home country due to political turmoil. But there’s hope! With your assistance and bank account information, this ex-big shot can loot a fortune (anywhere from one to one hundred million dollars) out of his former country and split it with you for your troubles. Amazingly, one website estimates that enough people have fallen for this scam that a total of $32 billion was lost through 2007.
Impostor Bank Websites
Plenty of people were uncomfortable with the idea of conducting their bank affairs online at first, and it looks like some of those fears were well-founded. Using a tactic known as “phishing”, some nefarious scammers actually go to the trouble of creating impostor websites that appear to belong to known banks like Wachovia and Bank of America. Victims are lured to the imposter page via e-mails that are carefully constructed to seem like the actual bank sent them, typically containing messages like “the bank has recently undergone a security audit and needs you to confirm your username and password.” Once you input this information at the impostor site, the scammer has everything necessary to empty your bank account into his own.
The online payment service PayPal has exploded in popularity as Internet commerce became the norm. Most online merchants and all of eBay accept PayPal, and many people now have their bank accounts hooked up to the service’s database. Unfortunately, this has made PayPal’s millions of users into attractive targets for con artists. In much the same manner as bank scams, the scammer sends you an e-mail that looks and feels like it came from PayPal itself. Most commonly, this e-mail states that you are required to input your username and password for a “routine security check” or a similar reason. Those who take the bait soon find that their entire PayPal balance has been siphoned away. And while many assume the authorities (or PayPal itself) have rock-solid procedures for catching the perpetrators, it is actually quite rare for them – or the lost money – to be recovered.
Work From Home
A slightly different Internet scam is the “work from home” hoax. This scam permeates the Internet under countless guises, including mailing envelopes from your desk, easy money on eBay, and affiliate marketing (which is viable but far more difficult than advertised.) The usual procedure involves the victim being pitched on the wonderful 9-5 escaping opportunity they are about to receive. At this point the victim is asked to pay a fee for entrance into the “program” or for a “course” to be shipped to their doorstep. A popular version of this currently making the rounds is the “I get paid to post links on Google” pitch, which is a grossly oversimplified way of saying that you can profit by running Google AdSense ads on a webpage. Virtually none of these programs even come close to the results they promise, but the sale and purchase of them continues unabated.
It’s bad enough when a scam endangers one’s bank account, but when it potentially endangers your freedom, insult is quickly added to injury. Such is the case with postal forwarding and reshipping scams. Here’s how it usually works. You (the victim) see an ad online from someone seeking a “correspondence manager.” Answering the ad produces a story from this person about how they run an offshore corporation that needs someone in the U.S. to take possession of goods sent to them and reship these items elsewhere. Victims may also be asked to accept wire transfers into their bank accounts. What actually occurs is that these people order merchandise online using stolen credit cards and ship the goods through you to distort the money trail of who did what. Whatever money you make from this scam is overshadowed by the very real possibility of the FBI banging down your door during the investigation.
Free XBox, iPod, etc.
Driving citizens and authorities crazy since about 2006 have been the still-prevalent “Free Xbox” scams. The usual pattern here involves a banner ad exclaiming that you have been selected as the winner of a free XBox, iPod, or other desirable consumer good. Clicking the ad takes you to a webpage restating the same promise but also requesting your debit card information so that the benevolent website can cover its shipping charges. By this point you should begin to see the writing on the wall: the promised item never arrives, random charges begin appearing on your bank statement, and as PCWorld puts it “the only thing that gets shipped and handled is your identity.”
According to the FBI, auction fraud scams accounted for more than 70,000 complaints last year – more than one in four. There number and variety of auction scams is limited only by imagination, but common variants include misleading product descriptions that don’t match what you receive, passing off counterfeit versions of designer clothing, or simply not receiving anything after paying the winning bid. Also widespread are what is known as “second chance scams”, where the loser of an auction is given the opportunity to buy the item at a reduced price by giving the seller his bank account information for a “wire transfer.” Needless to say, the only transfer that takes place is the one shoveling the money in your account into theirs.
While not as common today as, say, back in 2003-2005, spyware is still a major source of web-based fraud. A spyware program generally foists its way onto your computer through security holes or as a silent bundle with something you wanted to download, such as a screensaver. Once on your computer, the spyware proceeds to sponge off its resources to serve its own needs, such as by displaying advertisements or harvesting your credit card numbers as you shop or bank online. Insidious types of spyware have included Gator, Xupiter, LOP.com and CoolWebSearch, each of which is discussed in painful detail on SpywareInfoForum.com.
Advanced Fees For “Guaranteed” Loans or Credit Cards
At this point we should attach a warning: anything or anyone asking you to pay a fee in advance is setting you up to get hosed. The latest in a long line of scams to follow this format is charging you advance fees for “guaranteed” loans or credit cards. To hook you, a professional-looking website claiming to represent Visa or MasterCard promises that a pre-approved credit card is waiting for you if only you’ll pay a fee to “cover the paperwork” or a similarly official-sounding purpose. As About.com points out, “if only one in every thousand people fall for this scam, the scammers still win several hundred dollars. Alas, far too many victims, pressured by financial problems, willingly step into this con man’s trap.”
Online lottery scams are particularly easy to put over on people, given the widespread popularity of offline lottery tickets and prizes. Very simply, a scam artist will send an e-mail (or display a banner advertisement) stating that you have won a lottery – perhaps with a prize in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. This is a fantasy many people are desperate to believe and so it requires very little coaxing to have them key in their bank account information to take possession of the windfall they’ve been chasing all their lives. Of course, once this information resides with the scammer, anything from bogus charges to full-fledged emptying of the victim’s bank account to identity theft ensues.
Disaster Relief Scams
Most of us are horrified and sympathetic when natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina devastate a region. Naturally, many are eager to offer whatever help or assistance they can to the victims, including financial support. Sadly, the scammers of the world have seized upon this as yet another opportunity to channel our good intentions into a windfall for themselves. Fake websites and e-mails are now routinely sent around whenever disaster strikes, tugging at the heart strings of everyday people to send whatever they can. Naturally, all money “donated” through these websites goes straight into the pockets of a con artist, never to play even the tiniest role in disaster relief.