Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by PSECU, a Pennsylvania-based credit union.
Email scams grow more sophisticated with each passing day. While many people now raise a skeptical brow at emails from their long-lost uncle twice removed who just happens to have a fat inheritance to distribute once they receive “processing fees,” scores of individuals still fall prey to cybercriminals daily.
Knowing how to identify an email scam helps protect people from losing their hard-earned money to online thieves. Avoid opening electronic correspondence exhibiting any of the following signs and refuse to take action on them without first verifying the legitimacy of the correspondence.
1] Return to Sender
Hesitate before opening emails from unknown senders. While this sounds time-consuming, most email protocols make this relatively simple. As many people receive dozens or hundreds of emails daily, mark all messages for deletion, uncheck those from known senders and trash the rest.
Before opening messages that look like they came from a legitimate business or institution, hover over the senders’ name to reveal the email address. The domain should match that of the organization precisely. Many scammers transpose one or two letters of a legitimate business’ URL to give an illusion of validity.
2] Scary, Sensational Subject Lines
Online predators feed on two primary human emotions — fear and hope. Scammers use sensational subject lines to trick unsuspecting parties into opening the email to learn more.
Cybercrooks seek to frighten users into taking action by citing unusual activity on a valid account. Usually, this prompts people to “verify” their password or other account info, when in reality, they’re handing over their personal information to thieves.
One recent scam went so far as to include a real former password in an email subject line stating that hackers cracked into the victim’s webcam and recorded them watching porn.
3] Inappropriate Attachments
Never open an email attachment from an unknown sender. Cybercriminals often include malware such as keystroke-monitoring programs in innocuous-looking documents. When the user downloads the attachment, the hacker can trace computer activity and collect usernames and passwords.
4] Initial Investments
Scammers bilk would-be investors out of their hard-earned cash by soliciting funding for fraudulent startup businesses or by offering impossible returns.
These emails often take the form of limited-time-only opportunities to start affiliate companies of a major corporation when in reality, the offer constitutes a pyramid scheme. Others prompt unsuspecting victims to purchase nonexistent stock.
5] It’s from the Feds
Although government agencies contact citizens and taxpayers via snail mail, not email, cyberthieves nevertheless pose as IRS agents or other officials to trick those caught unawares. Individuals receiving emails from anyone claiming to be tax collectors should contact the IRS or their state department of revenue via telephone to verify any liability stated.
Likewise, governmental officials will never request that citizens provide their Social Security numbers via electronic messaging means. Delete any emails requesting personal information such as birth dates or ID numbers.
6] No, You Weren’t Asking for It
Be wary of emails from unfamiliar companies stating, “Here is the information you requested,” or any variation on this theme. Often, scammers use this trick to prompt users to download special reports along with malware. Since the person receiving the email figures they must have requested the info received, they download the attachment and render their data vulnerable.
Remote workers needing to collaborate on projects with co-workers should utilize file-sharing software instead of emailing revisions back and forth as attachments. Doing so also protects employees from unwittingly revealing proprietary company information.
7] Your Money or Your Life
People need strong credit to buy homes and cars, so collection emails regarding unpaid debts prompt many to at least see what payments they missed.
Avoid opening emails attempting to collect debts. While federal law does not prohibit bill collectors from utilizing email, the vast majority of collection agencies attempt to reach those who owe through telephone or U.S. mail first.
Keep in mind that the law prohibits debt collectors from arresting people over unpaid bills, so immediately delete any emails threatening criminal charges. Likewise, if your employer’s email policy prohibits correspondence from outside parties, consumers can request debt collectors refrain from contacting them via company email.
Stay Scam Savvy
As technology continues to advance, new email scams will indubitably arise. Taking the time to learn the dirty tricks online shysters use can protect individuals from falling prey to illegal schemes. Email may be a powerful tool and spam filters can help, but ultimately, every user must shoulder the responsibility to keep themselves safe online.