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Scams, Slams and Spams

Updated on September 6, 2009


            As with a home or business mailing address, one of the hazards of having an e-mail account is junk mail (or “spam” as it has come to be called). Even with my filter on, a lot of useless garbage makes its way into my inbox. Most of it is relatively harmless, such as ads from cell phone companies offering great deals if you sign up with them, or newsletters from Rachael Ray that provide the latest great recipes for your dinner parties. These I discard without a second thought.

            However, the messages that fall into several large spam categories are the ones I keep, neatly filed in a folder marked “FBI.” Yes, these include the “Nigerian Scams,” “Lottery Scams,” “Work at Home Scams” and others that I have been receiving since late 2007. As of today, I have a grand total of 667 of these little gems in my “FBI” folder.

            When I received my first one, I was shocked. I had heard about these things before and knew to be wary of them. I filed an “ICD” (Internet Crime Division) report with the FBI and was satisfied that I had done my duty as a good citizen in alerting the authorities to this rip-off scheme. However, when they continued to flow into my inbox, I realized that there were too many for me, or anyone, to keep up with. (Ironically, this was around the time that I had begun my Criminal Justice studies. It gave me my first real-world example of how difficult it is to catch clever criminals).

            I decided to keep each of these spam messages so I would have tangible proof of just how serious this problem could be. Trust me, it’s very serious, and since the economic downturn it’s been getting worse than ever.

            The subject lines are very similar, usually saying something like “Urgent Reply,” “My Proposition,” “Dear Friend,” “Good Day” or (my personal favorite) “God Bless.” The senders’ names may sound very foreign, such as “Sammi Jabril” or “Buko Dada” and most claim to be from some country in Africa (hence the term “Nigerian Scam”). The sender says that he (or she) is in the possession of a large sum of money that came to him (or her) through someone’s death (usually a beloved family member and/or high-ranking official) and is in desperate need of someone with a U.S. bank account to accept the funds in exchange for a percentage of the total. The result, if someone agrees to do this, is the payout from the victim’s bank account for “taxes,” “transfer fees” and the like, long delays in receipt of the funds and eventually a severing of contact with NO MONEY RECEIVED. The victim has paid out a lot of money for absolutely no payoff in return.

            In reviewing the contents of my folder, I discovered that the scammers are getting more creative and potentially causing even more damage to many more victims. Some claim to be foreign officials themselves, e.g., “MR LOUIS GOODMAN DIPLOMATIC DIRECTOR.” While, previously, scammers counted on victims’ sympathy for the plight of someone who lost a loved one and desperately needs to escape a war zone with enough money to start a new life, an official-sounding name not only adds an air of legitimacy but also authority.

            Other senders mask as men of the cloth (“Rev David Johnson”). In many of the e-mails which appealed to sympathy, the sender would use words such as “My husband and I were good Christians. Now that he is dead I appeal to you as another good Christian to help me.” Religion can be a powerful force. Claiming to be a minister or priest exploits people’s religious proclivities and, to a certain extent, submissiveness to authority (how many of us grew up being taught to obey our pastor?).

            Recently, other e-mails of this type have hit closer to home. I have collected about five claiming to be from the FBI itself! I promptly sent the first of these to the real Bureau in an ICD report. Senders vary from “FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION” to “FBI Director” to “Federal Reserve.” If appeals from foreign authorities fail, those from one’s home soil might succeed. (FYI: the real FBI would NEVER send e-mails like this to private citizens. Check their website for further clarification.)

            Since the economic recession, the scammers have turned up the heat. I received one about three months ago claiming to be from my bank. The message claimed that I needed to resend some personal information, such as my bank account number and SSN, for them to be able to continue sending me bills and statements. The first thing I noticed was that the bank’s “logo” at the top of the message was distorted—stretched out and flattened. The second thing I noticed was that, as is customary with most scams, the grammar was awful! I called my bank immediately and they confirmed that this was indeed a scam, and that they would NEVER request such information in an e-mail. I forwarded the message to their fraud division. Since then, I have received several more similar messages—from banks I don’t use!

            Registering with job sites can generate more scams. There have been many “work at home” offers from people who claim to have seen my profile on Yahoo! HotJobs or All involve running money from payments made by their “clients” through my own bank account and receiving a percentage of each payment as commission. Some sound very legitimate—they’ve even attempted to clean up their grammar. However, as they all sound way too similar to one another, it’s obvious that every one of them is a money laundering scheme. These anger me even more than the “Nigerian Scams” because they prey on desperate people like yours truly who are looking for work—any work—to support themselves in these lean times. Every time I see one, I wonder if just one person who’s down on his luck convinced himself that this one HAS to be real (after all, it was a response that came from a legitimate job search website, right?) and got involved in a criminal scheme. Not only could this person lose his money, but also his freedom.

            July 12, 2009 marked the last straw for me. Sitting in my inbox early that Sunday morning was a so-called job offer from a “Dr. Thomas A. McDonnell” of “Midwest Research Institute.” The man claimed to be a research scientist offering yet another work-at-home position running funds through my personal bank account for a starting commission of 10% which could go as high as 15%. It sounded too good to be true, especially since the grammar was, yet again, atrocious. However, the name of the company sounded legitimate, so I did an Internet search to see if it was just another “dummy.” Imagine my surprise when I landed on the website of the real (yes, real!) Midwest Research Institute (MRI) in Kansas. A little more digging revealed that Dr. McDonnell is a real person. He is on the Board of Directors of MRI and the CEO of another company! The e-mail address and phone number given in the spam e-mail did not match the real location of MRI. I knew that this was indeed a scam, one that targeted innocent recipients AND the unwitting people whose names were being used to commit a crime!

            By now, I was seeing red. How many people from both legitimate companies might lose their jobs by having the companies’ reputations dragged through the mud?!? I promptly forwarded the message to the real Dr. McDonnell and the director of operations of MRI, emphasizing what was being done, where the dummy phone number was located and that, in my opinion, they needed to report this to the authorities immediately. The next day, I received an email from the director of MRI thanking me for my message and explaining that other people had alerted them to the same scam. Thank goodness most people are smarter than these criminals give them credit for.

            In my graduate classes, I have studied many possible reasons for crime. Greed is at the top of the list, which is the main reason “white-collar” crimes exist. They are just as damaging, in some cases more so, as “street crime” that we are all taught to fear. It makes its way into our homes via the Internet and regular mail (I got an “overseas lottery” offer and “mystery shopper” offer that way) and can be just as harmful as a burglar breaking in and stealing the good silver.

            If I am accepted into the FBI, I hope to be assigned to the White Collar and Internet Crimes Division. For now, I hope that these paragraphs have helped illustrate just how far scammers will go to get people to hand their hard-earned money over to them.

            Remember: if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.


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