Protect Yourself From Identity Theft and Email Fraud

Avoiding email scams isn’t as simple as it used to be. Most people know to delete messages promising lottery winnings or a free iPhone, but what about requests from legitimate businesses? Or links from family and friends? As people gain awareness of the risks of cyber crime, criminals are finding more subtle ways to appeal to consumers and lure them into their online scams.

According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), online crime has become pervasive throughout the U.S. In 2010, the center received close to 304,000 reports of Internet fraud—its second-highest number in the last 10 years—totaling more than $364 million in losses. And though many Web users associate email fraud with the notorious “Nigerian email scams,” the problem has roots closer to home. In fact, more than 65 percent of IC3’s reported perpetrators resided in the U.S., followed by the U.K. (10.4 percent), Nigeria (5.8 percent) and Canada (2.4 percent), according to its 2010 Internet Crime Report.

Despite fraudsters’ increasing sophistication, simple awareness of the scams they employ can help you avoid falling victim to their overzealous promises and all-too-convincing appeals.

Be on the lookout

Unsolicited email, or “spam,” is where most hoaxes start, according to the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), an arm of the U.S. government that responds to and defends against cyber attacks. Here are some top scam types identified by US-CERT:

  • Fake business opportunities and “get rich quick” schemes These work by promising you the chance to cash in with minimal effort. Though enticing, these emails and online ads lack detail about the supposed opportunity and provide links where you can learn more—after, of course, entering your credit card information.
  • Health and diet scams – Schemes like these prey on consumers’ insecurities by offering weight-loss products at special low prices. However, the promised products are usually bogus or never arrive.
  • Phishing scams Fraudsters use these to trick users into entering personal information on fake Web sites. Emails are forged to look like they’re from banks or other organizations users may actually have contact with.
  • Trojan horse emails - These seemingly harmless emails, which often appear to come from family members and friends, implore users to open attachments or programs that give external hackers access to their personal files.

In addition, many fraudsters use old-fashioned hacking to force their way into your email. Once inside your account, they can search for financial information and sensitive data—and forward their scams to the contacts in your address book.

Staying safe

With all of these cyber threats out there, it’s important to protect your personal and financial assets on the Web. Though con artists are experts at creating believable frauds and hacks that are tough to detect, there are several steps you can take to keep your information secure:

  • Make sure your web browser is up to date. Browser developers work hard to respond quickly to new hacks and scams—so take advantage of their expertise.
  • Create passwords that include numbers and special characters, such as #, & and *, to make your email account more secure.
  • Avoid making purchases on public networks, such as coffee shop hotspots. These are less secure than private networks and provide a wealth of opportunities for hackers.
  • Read the fine print in emails you receive. Review all promises and claims carefully and resist the urge to act immediately on special offers.
  • In times of crisis, research any charity seeking your financial assistance. Fraudsters have used recent natural disasters, such as the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, to scam do-gooders out of intended donations.

Being proactive against these scams will help you avoid identity theft and bring you one step closer to keeping your personal information secure. To report spam, you can forward suspicious emails to the Federal Trade Commission at