If you stay on the Internet long enough, you will start to get emails offering stuff that seems just too good to be true. Before you think too much about the offer, if you seem to be getting something for nothing, or for far more than the effort you would put into it, rest assured that it is not a valid offer. Today, I’m going to look at some of these scams and common Internet myths.

“Make Money Fast” chain letters

For decades now, people have been getting chain letters in their mailboxes. With the rise of email, now we are getting these chain letters in our inboxes, too. You’ve seen them before. The message arrives with a list of people, and you are supposed to send some money–usually $5 – $10–to the people at the top of the list. Since most people aren’t going to just send out money like that, the chain letter appeals to your greed by telling you to remove the top name on the list and add yourself to the bottom of the list. Now you email or send out the chain letter to as many people as you know or can find. The idea is that they will send the money to the top people, remove the first name, add themselves to the bottom, and the process continues. Eventually your name will reach the top, and you will get gazillions of dollars sent to you.

Sound too good to be true? It is. This type of chain letter is a scam. Not only is it a pyramid scheme that benefits only the few people who jump on it at the first, it is also illegal, and the post office frowns heavily on such activity. Do you want the local Postmaster to go all postal on you for breaking the law? I’m sure you don’t.

Sometimes these scams will tell you that it’s OK to send cash through the post (it’s not legal), or that they are 100% legal because the money is being sent via PayPal (it’s not legal), or that this pyramid scheme is legal because you’re buying a pamphlet or service from them (it’s still not legal).

I have already written up my feelings about pyramid schemes, but you can read more about the “Make Money Fast” type of chain letter at StopSpam.org, or the funny Make Money Fast Hall of Humiliation where they publicly mock morons who try these illegal scams.

Nigerian 419 Scams

Have you received a letter from some barrister in Africa telling you that someone died there who had millions of dollars in the bank? If you act now, they’ll cut you in for a percentage of the money if you pretend to be the next of kin for this guy. These deals are not honest, but because they appeal to human greed and dishonesty, there will always be a few people who will take the bait. After all, 10% of a $25 million prize is still a good piece of change.

These are often called Nigerian 419 scams because 4-1-9 is the section of the Nigerian penal code that prohibits these advanced fee scams. The U.S. Secret Service explains some commonly used tactics of these scammers:

  • An individual or company receives a letter or fax from an alleged “official” representing a foreign government or agency;
  • An offer is made to transfer millions of dollars in “over invoiced contract” funds into your personal bank account;
  • You are encouraged to travel overseas to complete the transaction;
  • You are requested to provide blank company letterhead forms, banking account information, telephone/fax numbers;
  • You receive numerous documents with official looking stamps, seals and logo testifying to the authenticity of the proposal;
  • Eventually you must provide up-front or advance fees for various taxes, attorney fees, transaction fees or bribes;
  • Other forms of 4-1-9 schemes include: c.o.d. of goods or services, real estate ventures, purchases of crude oil at reduced prices, beneficiary of a will, recipient of an award and paper currency conversion.

Because appealing to greed is so effective, this scam has spread out from Nigeria and other countries in Africa to different parts of the world. I have seen 419-style scams originating from areas of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. And I only see it getting worse over time.

But not all 419 news is dark and gloomy. There are also people who are doing their best to waste the scammers’ time and money. Among these, 419Eater.com is my favorite. The people on this site convince the scammers to send photos of themselves holding up silly signs or committing silly acts. The two pictures above are from 419Eater.com, showing the scammers being scammed. I also suggest reading some of the letters in the archives, so you can see how much fun people have had messing with scammers’ heads. I recommend The Church of Bread and Wine and The Road to Nowhere accounts from the letters archives as prime examples of scammer-baiting.

“Send this to everyone you know!”

Every so often, I get an email with a bazillion RE: and FWD: tags on it. Inside is some warning about a computer virus or some “cool deal you can’t miss out on!”, and somewhere in the message is the command, “Forward this on to everyone you know.” Before you obediently forward the message to every email address you can find, stop and think for a bit. Is this a message that 100% of the recipients will appreciate or need? And how embarrassed will you be when someone replies with a link to a site that completely debunks the message?

Some of these messages promise lots of money from Bill Gates or free flights from Delta Air Lines if you forward the news to enough people–don’t believe it. Some messages warn about a terrible virus that none of the anti-virus scanners can catch–don’t believe it.

And above all, don’t forward the message to everyone you know.

If you get a message and you suspect that it might be bogus or an urban legend (and those two are not mutually exclusive), the first thing to do is spend a few minutes researching it. A quick Google search will usually turn something up. Or you can go to snopes.com and see if it shows up there. I like to go to the What’s New page every week or so to see what sort of emails are flying around.

Basically, if you see an email exhorting you to forward it to everyone you know, don’t. If you must forward something–and I admit, I like forwarded emails when they are funny–send them to specific people who will enjoy them.

And while I’m giving out free advice: learn how to BCC.

Leave a Reply