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.
If you bite, you're told in subsequent messages that you'll need to pay $1,000 or so up-front, for taxes, bribes or other expenses. The money you send is never seen again, but is followed by demands for more of it. When you finally catch on to what's happening, these scammers often turn to identity theft, "draining bank accounts and credit card balances until the victim's assets are taken in their entirety," reports the FBI.
Millions of people have gotten wise to this trick in recent years, but a related ploy to make Panda's list is a salt-in-the-wounds follow-up: Correspondence that often comes from the same scamming ring claims you might be able to get money from a fund established to compensate Nigerian letter victims. That money, of course, is only available after you send money for taxes, insurance or other bogus fees.
Here are five more top Web scams from 2000 to 2010, based on frequency and wideness of distribution:
- Fake lotteries. E-mails claim that recipients won a lottery (usually it's a foreign sweepstakes that you never entered) and that personal info such as bank account numbers and Social Security number are needed to claim the prize. And you're asked for advance payments to cover insurance, taxes or other fees that are as fake as the contest.
To fool victims with a sense of authenticity, scammers sometimes send, by real-world mail, a "partial-award" check, with instructions to deposit it and wire back a portion as fees. After that deposit, the check proves to be counterfeit, and the unlucky winners are responsible for all money drawn from that deposit.
- 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).