As in the offline world, the Internet has a criminal element. These cybercriminals are using Internet tools to commit the same crimes they have always committed, from robbing you to misusing your good name and financial information. Learn to spot the types of scams that occur online and you will go a long way towards steering clear of Internet crime.

The warning signs of fraud

BEFORE you click on a link that comes in a forwarded e-mail message or forward a message to others, ask yourself:

Is the information legitimate? Sites such as, or Urban Legends can help you learn if the e-mail is a scam.

Does a message ask you to click links in e-mail or instant messages?  If you're unsure whether a message is genuine, call the company using the number from a past statement or the phone book. To visit the Web site, type the address if you know it or use your own bookmark rather than clicking a link. If the Web site is new to you, search for the company using your browser and use that link to visit their site.

Does the e-mail have a photo or video to download? If so, exercise caution. If you know the person who sent the photo, it is probably fine to download, but if the photo has been forwarded several times and you do not know the person who sent it originally, be careful. It may deliver a virus or other type of malware to your computer.

Think before you click, and save yourself and others from scams, fraud, hoaxes, and malware.

Common e-mail scams

Besides phishing scams, which use e-mail to try to get your financial account information to steal from you, there are other kinds of e-mail scams. Many of these are engineered to try to get you to click on a link or open an attachment which will then cause malware (spyware, keystroke tracking programs and the like) to be downloaded to your computer. Some e-mail scams also convince you to forward the e-mail to others, thereby spreading the dangerous link and malware. 

Here are some of the e-mail scams in circulation:

A 'timely' warning. These almost always want you to do something—for example, keep your cell phone number off of telemarketer lists, forward the e-mail on to help even more people (like a warning about a new virus that is circulating and destroying computers), or stop (or start) taking a wonder remedy.

Desperate requests for help. These types of e-mail scams are particularly common after disasters. Since there is always a disaster somewhere in the world, these scams are always in circulation. They may also take the form of an individual disaster, usually involving someone with a terminal illness who can't afford a lifesaving treatment. These will probably lead you to a Web site where you can donate to the cause. Not only is the e-mail a con job, people who give money through the Web site have almost certainly "donated" their credit card information to identity thieves.

Offers of free money. No stranger is going to give you free money. Yet a remarkable number of people hope they will. These scams, luring you into clicking a dangerous link, come in a few flavors, such as:

  • Unclaimed money owed to you. These e-mails lead you to a Web site or phone number where you'll be asked to give information about yourself to claim all the money owed to you.
  • A rich person or company wants to give you money or prizes.  They don’t, and they certainly wouldn’t notify you through a random email.

An intriguing picture or video or a link to an interesting Web site. These links in e-mail messages may be entirely benign, or very dangerous. Clicking on them may download viruses or other malicious software to your computer. If you know and trust the sender, you may decide to click a link, but if you're unsure of the source, don't click any links in a message.

How to dissect an e-mail scam

E-mail scams are typically low value, high volume crimes where the cost to a given consumer is comparatively low, but the high number of victims makes the money quickly add up for the criminals behind the scam.

Scammers and other criminals study human behavior and motivations. They know people are much more likely to fall for a scam related to a topic of interest, holiday, event, or worry already on their minds. Things like last minute sales before a holiday; bank loans in credit crunches, or cheaper loans at any time; official looking notices such as tax notices in tax season; or discount drugs for seniors are popular as topics for scam.

View our 5 Common E-mail Scams page for more information.

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Phishing scams

Phishing scams are an attempt to trick you into divulging sensitive personal information that allows somebody to steal your identity or empty your bank account.

These scams can come in many guises—for example a message may state that you've won the lottery or you've been selected to receive something free.

Be very skeptical if you receive an e-mail that looks like it is from your bank, broker, or other trusted company but asks you to verify or re-enter sensitive personal or financial information through e-mail, a Web site they direct you to, or a phone number they provide. Contact the institution using a phone number from a statement or type in a company Web site address in your browser to go to their site and ask about the communication.

Look for these telltale signs to spot a phishing e-mail.

  • The sender is unknown to you.
  • The e-mail is illiterate with grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.
  • You are asked to provide information such as an account number, phone number, or social security number.
  • The e-mail address is odd or doesn’t include the business name.  Legitimate businesses have their own domain names (such as or
  • A message contains words like URGENT or SECRET, or includes lots of exclamation marks.


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Scams that prey on emotions

The Internet, and particularly blogs and social networking sites, can provide wonderful outlets for emotional sharing, but when you find yourself experiencing extremes of joy or grief, consider carefully what you share online. Just as there are offline criminals who read birth, graduation, wedding, and obituary announcements in newspapers to find vulnerable people to target, there are online criminals watching as you post information about your feelings and significant life events.

The joy of a wedding or the arrival of a new baby may inspire individuals to share information on wedding sites and baby registries that they would otherwise keep private. People may post pictures, full names, locations, dates, and a great deal more. This kind of sharing may help a criminal to identify homes to rob or perform ID theft or financial scams.

Guidelines for sharing grief and joy

Four simple guidelines for sharing strong emotions, from grief to joy, make you much safer: Always:

  • Learn whether the Web site allows you to make some (or all) information private.
  • Review the information fields and a few sample pages to see what material is typically displayed. Look for risks that others may have inadvertently exposed themselves to.


  • Make a conscious choice about whether you want the site to have restricted (only those whom you allow) or public access, and then decide what information you want to provide.
  • Let others know your safety boundaries so they can share with you in a way that respects your wishes, and take the time to learn other’s restrictions so that you are respectful of their safety and privacy.

In grieving, this family exposed a great deal of information – including full family details, location and time of service, how to contact the family, and the family genealogy. 

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Sweepstakes, lotteries, and prizes

If you have spent any time online, you have seen ads claiming ‘You are already a winner, click here’, or ‘Click to enter our sweepstakes and win fabulous prizes’. You have probably also received spam informing you that ‘you’ve won the lottery’.

These offers have only one purpose – to make the sender or advertiser money. At best they will have all kinds of hoops for you to jump through to get the ‘free’ prize so you end up spending more than if you’d bought an item directly. It’s much more likely however that along the way they will collect as much information as they can from you to resell to spammers, scammers, and ID thieves.

Typically these prize awards will require all sorts of information from you for ‘authorization’ and for ‘transferring the funds to your bank’ – which is scammer language for we’re going to steal your identity andempty your bank account. They may also try convincing you to send money to cover ‘handling costs’ that somehow need to be paid before they can send you what you ‘won’.  Even going to the Web site these scammers direct you to is taking a risk; this is highly likely to download malware onto your computer if you don’t have the antivirus or antispyware software in place.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some legitimate sweepstakes and lotteries, there are. And these legitimate companies can be identified through the Better Business Bureau. Never trust the claims an unknown company or entity makes about themselves or others. Legitimate sweepstakes, lottery, and prize-giveaway companies will not advertise or contact you via unsolicited e-mail nor advertise in flashing animation displayed on unrelated websites. These indicators are clear red flags.

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