If The Sopranos and The Godfather taught you anything, it's that when a contract is placed on your life, there's no warning that you're about to be "hit."
And yet, the infamous hit man e-mail scam is back — causing some to laugh at its absurdity but prompting genuine fear in others.
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Most recent targets receiving the latest wave report a rehash of the original message, which first appeared in 2006, reemerged in 2008 and now seems on the rebound.
The message, sent by a self-described assassin, claims that a contract has been placed on your life. No doubt it can be creepy reading in detail that you and maybe your family are on a list to be murdered, that the killer has been watching you in recent days, etc.
One recent recipient: The police chief of Powell, Ohio.
"I was certainly taken aback when I got it," laughs Gary Vest, who runs the police department in the 13,000-population community outside of Columbus. "You wouldn't think they'd be foolish enough to send it to the police, and then not have the police react.
"Even funnier was that the e-mail said I needed to send $10,000 to Nigeria to prevent the contract on my life. What? My life is only worth $10,000 when others who get this kind of e-mail are told they need to send a lot more money?"
Joking aside, after tracking the e-mail's origins to Nigeria through the sender's Internet address, Vest quickly issued a public warning after getting the threat, which was sent to his police department e-mail account.
"I worry that others who may get this kind of e-mail, especially our senior citizens, may be worried to leave the house, thinking someone is trying to kill them," he says.
Relax. The real intention of this hoax is to hit your bank account. For a price ranging from several hundred to many thousands of dollars, the e-mails claim, the supposed hit man will spare your life or even sell you an audio tape that reveals which of your enemies hired him. All you need to do is provide your bank account number, or respond to further instructions.
It's just spam, sent out in bulk by scammers who purchase e-mail address lists. They are typically Nigerians, Russians or other foreign cyber crooks, all thousands of miles away.
A newer version of the letter seems focused on identity theft. In those e-mails, the sender claims to be with the FBI in London or elsewhere. You're told that someone was recently arrested for the murders of several American and foreign citizens and that you were identified as the next target. That e-mail tries to get you to provide personal information, supposedly to help with the FBI's investigation.
Your best defense if you receive a hit man e-mail? Forward it to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, then hit the delete button.
Responding in any way can just alert the spammers that you're vulnerable to scare tactics, leading them to flood your in-box with more spam and scam attempts.
And of course, never provide your bank account or any personal information, which opens the door to identity theft.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.