Research e-mail claims before taking action

By Mariah Smith
MSU Computer Applications and Services

One of my father's favorite sayings has always been, "A fool and his money are soon parted."

Unfortunately, criminally minded Internet users send hoaxes, scams, lotteries and giveaways bent on separating the rest of us from our money.

By now, most of us have received the infamous Nigerian e-mail scam. This e-mail scam has been around for a very long time. The basic premise of the scam is that someone in a foreign country (often Nigeria, but sometimes Ireland or England) needs your help to obtain a large amount of money. In return for your financial assistance, the sender will give you a percentage of the money.

Most people treat these e-mails as nuisances and simply delete them. However, many people reply to them and fall victim to the scam, also known as a 4-1-9, or advanced-fee scam.

It is estimated that millions of dollars are lost each year to these scams. In fact, the average person who responds to these e-mails loses around $5,100.

Interestingly, most scammers are located in the United States, primarily in California, New York, Florida, Texas and Washington, D.C. The largest percentage of people who fall victim to these Internet scams are between 30 and 50 years old. If you respond to one of the advanced-fee scam e-mails, there are several steps that should be taken immediately.

First, contact your financial institution and request new cards and account numbers. Tell them what has happened and ask them to monitor your account for unusual activity.

Second, visit your local police department to file a police report. Ask for a copy of the report and case number to accompany your notifications to your financial institutions.

Third, call the three major credit reporting institutions -- Equifax, Experian and Trans Union -- and ask them to flag your accounts. Also, change the passwords on compromised accounts.

Anytime you receive an e-mail that seems too good to be true or pulls on your emotional heartstrings, start investigating. There are several websites that debunk common e-mail scams and urban legends.

These websites include http://www.snopes.com, http://www.hoax-slayer.com, and http://www.truthorfiction.com.

These sites allow you to search by topic or keywords. For example, if you receive an e-mail containing a story of how sentries guarded the Tomb of the Unknowns during Hurricane Isabel, you could look under "military" on Snopes.com. According to Snopes, this story is true, so you could forward the e-mail to other people. Even though no one would be harmed or scammed if this story were not true, you could lose credibility for sending false information.

Another common e-mail people receive is one regarding a child who has cancer. It claims that for every e-mail forwarded, 3 cents will be donated to cancer research. According to Snopes, this e-mail is false and should not be forwarded. Recipients should be skeptical of any e-mail that promises incentives for forwarding.

Taking time to research e-mails can save you money and prevent you from filling friends' and co-workers' inboxes with fraudulent e-mails.

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