It's ubiquitous -- "Dialing-For-Dollars" version 3.0: a gateway to irresistible deals; an antidote to loneliness; a pathway to riches (either earned or not); a vehicle for helping those victimized by man-made or natural disasters; a clarion of sensational news; a conduit for memories; the bearer of less than glad tidings from our bank, our boss or our friends at the IRS; and, the cyber pony-express for a cry for help from a friend or relative lost and "penniless" in a foreign land.
Once the little brother of the telephone, email is now an inescapable part of the communication fabric of our lives -- an important building block of our cyber DNA. And it is being attacked, and ultimately hijacked, repeatedly by those who want to be us so they can more effectively loot us, our families and friends.
Unlike Jesus and his Apostles, Ivan and his hordes of "phishermen" see us as fish and our personal data as their loaves.
The FBI reported an 8.3 percent rise in cybercrime last year. That's 290,000 incidents worth $525 million in financial losses to victims. The average take was $4,573.
For your amazement and unbridled reading pleasure, I've compiled an extensive — though not complete — list of dangerous emails containing the major phishing scams circulating right now.
|I am Wandering in the Desert With Nary a Farthing to My Name|
(aka The Stranded Traveler Scam)
With summer travel season upon us, watch for emails from "friends" claiming they were robbed while traveling in Europe or Asia, and need money immediately. The FBI says this lure regularly costs victims thousands of dollars apiece.
Tip: Before sending money, verify that your friend is actually in trouble through another form of communication.
|Come Fly With Me|
(aka Travel Deals Too Good to Be True)
Another hot scam is phishing emails advertising amazing travel deals. Years ago the Better Business Bureau found consumers lose $10 billion annually to travel scams like this. Some emails even refer to free tickets from "United Airways," which doesn't exist.
Tip: A cheap ticket could send you to the poor house. The phrase "too good to be true" is a cliché for a reason.
|Render Unto Caesar That Which Is Caesar's|
(aka Urgent Messages From a Bank or Government Agency)
In one recent phishing attack, scammers pretending to uphold the "strict security standards" of HSBC bank asked recipients to report scam emails to the bank's website. But the link itself contained dangerous malware. Other thieves intimidate victims by impersonating top FBI officials or bring unwelcome greetings from the IRS announcing that you owe them money and need to pay up ASAP. Remember: Financial institutions and government agencies never communicate sensitive information by email.
Tip: Never click a link or open an attachment from a government agency or bank.
|When It Absolutely, Positively Had to Be Here by Now|
(aka the 'Missed Delivery' Scam)
Scammers know we hate to miss packages. In one common scam, they send phishing messages that appear to be from UPS or FedEx notifying us that a package could not be delivered. Among the top 20 keywords used in phishing, 14 had to do with shipping, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Tip: If your package goes walkabout, call UPS or FedEx directly.
|Can You Hear Me Now?|
(aka the Cellular Carrier Email Scam)
Scammers send emails directing people to a clone website made to look exactly like their cellular carrier's real website. They are asked to enter their passwords and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, and click for discounts, credits or prizes worth up to $500. Using the data, thieves hijack the victim's account.
Tip: If you want a deal from your cell carrier, visit their store, call them or go directly to their website.
|Hey Buddy Can You Spare a Dime?|
(aka the Bank Employee Phishing Scam)
If you work at a bank or financial institution, you're at special risk of getting targeted in a phishing scam. Scammers use insider bank lingo and stolen employee login credentials to convince employees to initiate wire transfers overseas worth up to $900,000, the FBI finds.
Tip: If you work with money, keep your guard up.
(aka The Nigerian Princes Are Back and Better Than Ever Scams)
Nigerian scammers are more sophisticated than ever. In addition to old lures including international lotteries, and get-rich schemes helping deposed dictators transfer secret caches of cash out of their Swiss bank accounts, they've started "buying" items on eBay and sending fake PayPal emails confirming the purchases.
Tip: Old scams never die. They simply evolve.
|I Can Make You Rich From Your Couch|
(aka Work-at-Home Scams)
Harvesting contacts through resume websites, schemers lure victims by convincing them to download various software programs for their new "jobs," cash checks in return for a transaction fee, or post their credit card info online.
Tip: Easy money usually isn't.
|Danger, Will Robinson!|
(aka the Hit Man Scam)
It sounds outlandish, but scammers regularly send emails to warn people that the only way to prevent being assassinated is to buy a security alarm connected to "Agent Bauer" of the "International Intelligence Bureau."
Tip: If you have a target on your back, the guy with the gun isn't about to offer you the right to buy a "get out of jail free" card.
|We Can Save You Thousands on Your Mortgage!|
(aka the Elusive Loan Modification Scam)
Phishing emails offer homeowners lower interest rates and payments, advising their marks to stop all communication with their lenders, in return for up-front fees. This is the perfect recipe for being fleeced while you lose your home. You pay, they flee -- you circle the drain.
Tip: Complex home refinancing deals don't get made via email.
|You Just Call Out My Name and You Know Wherever I Am I'll Come Running|
(aka the Emails From 'Old Friends' Scam)
California Polytechnic University is warning students to be on the lookout for emails from "old friends" that may actually come from scammers who have hacked old email accounts. Dormant email accounts are rarely checked and ripe for attack.
Tip: Want to connect with an old friend? Use Facebook (although that isn't a complete safe haven, either), or pick up the phone.
|Hey Kid, Have I Got a Deal for You!|
(aka the Hot Investment Tip Scam)
The latest iteration of this scam involves hackers learning which stocks people own, and sending phishing emails advising victims to sell underperforming stocks. The associated "tax payments" go to the thieves.
Tip: No reputable operation will let you buy and sell stocks by email.
|Help me Rhonda, Help, Help me Rhonda|
(aka the Confirm This Nonexistent Transaction Scam)
Scammers send emails asking victims to confirm purchases they never made. One recent iteration involves fake tickets on American Airlines.
Tip: Legitimate companies only ask you to confirm purchases once when you're already on their site.
|Where Have You Been All My Life?|
(aka the Russian Lonely Girl Scam)
It's the email you have been waiting for your whole life. A beautiful Eastern European woman with whom you have been exchanging pleasantries on a social networking site is ready to meet you. You may have already seen comely pictures and are ready to pick her up at the airport when she gets to the U.S. Only one problem – she needs a ticket and will come as soon as you give her your credit card information, or wire some funds from your local Western Union.
Tip: Never send money to anyone you have never met or actually spoken with.
The days of the simple phishing scam are gone. Even the fake Nigerian prince has grown up, learned better English, and often serves as an intermediary on other, bigger scams. As phishing scams develop, it's more important than ever to remain alert to potentially dangerous emails. Take a moment to consider each email in your inbox, and determine if it sounds legitimate. If not, you could become some scammer's next big catch.
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.