That deposed Nigerian monarch who asks for help to get his fortune out of the country — promising a portion into your hands — rates as a real king in one way: His infamous letters — the very first mass scam on the Internet, according to online security products firm Panda Security — are still going strong.
In fact, they're among the top 10 online scams of this decade, the firm reports.
Before e-mail allowed for mass reach, self-described foreign kings and dignitaries pitched their pleas by U.S. mail, and that cost postage they hoped to get back in spades. However the pleas arrive, they typically begin with an offer from a purported government figure in the throes of political unrest. Help transfer my fortune to safer grounds — your bank account — and part of it will be yours, claims the bogus royalty. All that's needed is your bank account number and other personal information. These scams are so common they rate their own category, "419 scams," named for the Nigerian criminal statute for fraud.
- Romance rip-offs. On dating websites and chat rooms, scammers take false identities such as Russian model and wealthy executive working overseas to steal the hearts — and money — of the lovelorn. After some e-mail schmoozing, they ask for money to come meet their newfound soul mate or to help with a sudden financial emergency. The scammers' good looks are as bogus as their stories: In 2006, Scam Alert revealed that photographs posted as the wooing fraudsters are usually stolen from legitimate modeling websites.
- Employment scams. In the foreign-agent variation of this con, says Panda, e-mails or job-board postings offer work-at-home jobs, allegedly from foreign companies. Respond to the advertisements and you're asked for your bank account number (allegedly for direct deposit of paychecks), Social Security number for a background check and sometimes money for supplies or certifications. You may receive checks and be asked to deposit them and send back a portion (minus your commission). You may get merchandise that you are told to reship. Again, the checks are bogus, and reshipped goods are usually stolen, exposing you to criminal charges — all while exposing you to identity theft by revealing your personal info.
- Stranded overseas. In this recent ruse, cybercrooks hack into Facebook and e-mail accounts and, pretending to be the account holder, they send e-mails to all the contacts, claiming to be stranded in some foreign country and in desperate need of wired money.
- Overpayment scams. Post "for sale" items on Craigslist or online auctions, and expect to be contacted by a mathematically challenged "buyer" who sends a check that's higher than the sales price. Never mind, just send back the difference, the person says. Again, the check received is fake, and the difference sent is lost.
Sid Kirchheimer is author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).