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The 11 Worst Internet Scams We’re Still Falling For

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In 2001, I planned to move to a new town in Connecticut. I put my house up for sale, but it sat there, unsold in the recession, for over a year. Not a nibble, even after I dropped the price and made some improvements.

Then one day, my realtor called with some astonishing news. “You’ve got a full-price offer!” she said. “And get this: The buyer doesn’t need an inspection, she’s paying cash, and she wants to close at the end of this week!”

OK, what? She didn’t need a mortgage? She didn’t want to negotiate?

Well, whatever. I showed up at the closing—but the buyer herself was absent.

Her lawyer was deeply apologetic. “She just called; she’s in tears. She won’t be buying your house after all. She just keeps saying, ‘The Nigerian man promised that I’d have the money by today!’”

Oh come on. Really? There’s one person left in America who fell for the old Nigerian email scam?

No, not one person—a lot of people. Internet scams are still a huge business. We sent Internet scammers $13 billion last year, and our gullibility shows no signs of abating.

All Internet scams are fundamentally the same: Someone offers you something you want for nothing. It’s usually money, but it might also be male sexual prowess, weight loss, or a cure—for baldness, herpes, cancer, cellulite, heart disease, diabetes, or deafness.

Here’s a shocker: Not everything you read on the Internet is true. And so, for your own entertainment and education, here they are: The 11 hottest Internet scams that we’re still falling for.

1. The Nigerian email scam

It comes to you by email:

“I am Mr. Paul Agabi,” it says. “I am the personal attorney to Mr. Harold Cooper, a national of your country, who used to work with Exxon Oil Company in Nigeria. On the 21st of April, my client, his wife and their only child were involved in a car accident. All occupants of the vehicle unfortunately lost their lives.”

Amazingly enough, rich dead guy left behind millions of dollars—and your correspondent wants you to have it! If you’ll help Mr. Paul Agabi get those millions out of the country, using your bank account as a parking spot, he’ll share the dough with you.

So you get excited. You write back. Maybe you make an offer on a house in Connecticut.

But then a funny thing happens: Mr. Agabi asks you to send some money to him, to cover bribes to officials. It’s only a couple hundred bucks, so you send it.

A week later, there’s another problem—he needs another payment, this time to take care of taxes. You send it.

Then legal fees. Then other fees.

You will never get any money. You will be asked to send more, more, more money until you come to your senses and realize you’re being bilked. Though it has expanded beyond the country of Nigeria, it is still called the “Nigerian” or “419″ scam (named for the section of the Nigerian penal code it violates).

Yes, people still fall for the Nigerian scam. A lot of people. Commence mass forehead-slapping.

2. The perfect girlfriend scam

You’re on a dating site, and you find The One: She’s gorgeous, she’s witty, and she’s really into you. She really wants to meet you—and she hints that your first date will be something you’ll never forget. You’re hooked, lined, and sunk.

Oh—but she needs a little money for a ticket to come see you.

Oh, and can you help her out with her rent? 

And how does it go when the big night arrives? It doesn’t. She doesn’t show up, because she’s not a real person. She’s a stock photo and a con artist who’s been playing you—probably a male.

3. The Craigslist scam

You’re trying to sell something on Craigslist, the free classified-ads site—a bicycle for $300, let’s say. You hit paydirt almost immediately:

“Send me your address, and I will mail you check right away for $1,500 to cover the bike and shipping to me in Germany. Deposit the check, and then send $450 by Western Union to my shipping company.”

Maybe your spider-sense is tingling. But sure enough, you get a money order or certified check in the mail. Fantastic!

The only problem is, it’s a forgery. You’ll deposit it, wire this guy $450 of your real money—and a couple of days later, your bank will let you know that the money order was a fake. Now you’ve lost your bike and $450.

Three big clues that you’re being targeted: (a) The offer is for more than you’re asking; (b) you’re supposed to send your item to another country; and (c​) you’re asked to use the other guy’s shipping company. 

4. The classic phishing scam

You get an email from your bank (or Amazon, eBay, PayPal, Yahoo, Apple) saying that there’s a problem with your account. You’re encouraged to click the link to fix the problem—“or else your account will be suspended!”

If you do click the link, though, you go a fake version of the bank’s Web site. When you then “log in,” you’re actually providing your name and password to the slimy Eastern European teenagers who are fishing for your login information, so they can steal your identity and make your life miserable. (This scam is called phishing because they’re “fishing” for your information. And millions of people get scammed that way every year.)

If you have any concern that the message could be true, do not click the link in the email. Instead, open your Web browser and type in the company’s address yourself (www.citibank.com or whatever). You’ll discover, of course, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with your account.

Usually, though, you can tell at a glance that these emails are fake. They’re filled with misspellings, typos, and the wording of a non-native English speaker. If it purports to be from Yahoo, it probably includes a graphic of the outdated logo:

Or here’s a slick trick: If you point your cursor at the “click here” link without clicking, the pop-up bubble shows you what website will actually open, as you can see here. And guess what? It’s not actually the bank/PayPal/Amazon!

5. The SMishing scam

Same thing as phishing, except that it arrives by text message (SMS) instead of email.

When you call the number to take care of the “account problem,” you get an automated voicemail system that prompts you for your account information.

6. The “mugged on vacation” scam

“Things got out of control on my trip to London,” says an email from one of your friends. “I was mugged, and all my belongings including cell phone and credit card were all stolen at gunpoint. I need your help flying back home and paying my hotel bills!”

This one’s especially confusing because the message comes from someone you know. (Sometimes, it’s even purporting to be a family member. It may even be a brief phone call instead of an email.)

Needless to say, your friend wasn’t actually in London and hasn’t been mugged.

Instead, the bad guys have planted software on your friend’s computer that sent this same sob-story email to everyone in his address book. (In a variation on this, a scammer takes over your friend’s Facebook profile and sends the message directly from there.)

If you’re even a tiny bit persuaded that this note might be legitimate, Snopes.com (the Internet’s clearinghouse for Internet rumors and scams) offers this superb advice:

“Ask the caller a question that an impersonator would be unable to answer. Be careful to pose a question that requires more than knowledge of basic family information (e.g., names, birthdates, addresses), because that information is too easy for outsiders to look up — instead, ask about something like a detail of a family event.”

7. The pre-approved credit-card scam

Your current financial situation isn’t so great right now, but hey, look at that—it’s your lucky day! You’ve just gotten an email that offers a pre-approved Visa card! Or a loan with an impressively high credit limit. Hallelujah!

All you have to do is pay the annual fee up front.

Can you guess what happens next? Yes, you can: You never hear from them again. There never was a credit card or loan.

(Similar cons: “You’ve won a lottery!” “You’ve landed a great job!” “You’re invited to a great investment!”)

8. The you’ve-won-the-sweepstakes scam

Hey, wow! You just won an overseas sweepstakes—one that you never even entered! How lucky can you be?

And get this—once you supply your mailing address, you actually do get a check for a huge amount of money! They tell you to deposit it, but in the meantime, send them a check for a couple hundred bucks to cover processing fees and taxes.

Only one problem, which you can probably see coming down Sixth Avenue: Their check was bogus. Your check is real. The only one who made money from this “sweepstakes” is the scammer.

9. The work-at-home scam

At this point, you should be rolling your eyes. These Internet scams all follow a pattern.

The work-at-home scam is when you get an email offering you an amazing work-at-home job. Maybe it’s stuffing envelopes, processing insurance claims, or processing credit-card transactions.

All you need to do is buy something up front: processing equipment, or a Web site, or access to a list of some type.

So you send the money, and guess what you get back?

Right. Nothing.

10. The false “infection detected” scam

You’re on the Web, when a pop-up message appears, claiming that your computer might be infected by a virus. You’re invited to click a link that will scan your system for infections. Surprise, surprise—the scan discovers one!

And for the low, low price of $50, this mysterious remote company will clean up your PC for you.

If you fall for it, you’ll spend the money and not get a cleanup—in fact, you may wind up with a fresh installation of spyware.

11. The faux charity scam

Every time there’s a disaster—a hurricane, an earthquake—millions of people, grateful to be safe and concerned for the victims, want to help. 

And a few people want to cash in.

If, in the aftermath of a disaster, you get an email seeking money to help the victims, don’t click. Instead, go directly to the Web site of a charity you know, and contribute there!

Human, meet Internet

None of this is new. None of this is surprising. The Internet may be the latest conduit for scams, hoaxes, and frauds—but the greed, fear, and hope it exploits are as old as homo sapiens.

But here’s the thing: homo sapiens means “wise person.” You have brains, too. Use them to steer clear of anything that’s too good to be true.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.