I must be famous.
I just got an email from the President of Nigeria, and he needs my help. In exchange, I'm going to receive $2 million. And it must be legitimate, because no one would fall for such a scam nowadays, not after so much attention has been paid to Internet scams. Right?
These scams, often called 4-1-9 scams after the Nigerian penal code which addresses these crimes, still flourish. They hook their victims by preying on the two most vulnerable areas of a person's psyche: sympathy and greed.
They relate some horrible tale about their situation, making you take pity on them. Then they promise fabulous riches. The scammer usually says he needs money to pay the legal fees associated with getting an inheritance or some other windfall. The scammer promises you a percentage, a commission if you will. And that's where it starts. The "legal fees" never stop … at least until you figure out you've been scammed.
In bad economic times like the one we're going through right now, scammers go into overdrive to try to separate you from your money. People are vulnerable and some, dreaming of a big payday, are willing to believe the lines the scammers are feeding them.
Scammers have unlimited imaginations and very little scruples. In the days after the BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, scammers were hitting people with bogus investment opportunities. Some offered shares in companies that supposedly had lucrative clean-up contracts.
The Internet is just the latest wrinkle in the world's long history of scams. In the 1900s, the Sir Francis Drake swindle fleeced thousands of people. The story goes like this: Sir Francis Drake, a very wealthy English sea captain, died with no heirs. A con man named Oscar Hartzell contacted people around the United States and told them they were related to Drake and, therefore, the beneficiaries of Drake's estate. Hartzell said he was going to sue the British government for the money and that these folks could 'buy shares' of the settlement. Ostensibly, the money was to prepare the legal fight. In reality, it funded Hartzell's extravagant lifestyle. (On the upside, he was eventually caught and sentenced to prison, where he promptly went bonkers, believing he really was Drake's heir.)
It's so obvious that it's almost cliché': if it sounds too good to be true, it is.
Check out Snopes.com to see what the latest scams are. It's also a great site to debunk urban legends. (I know this will come as a surprise to you, but Mikey from those old Life cereal ads did not die from eating Pop Rocks then drinking a Coke.)
Scambusters.org is another good place to check if you suspect a scam is afoot. And don't forget the Federal Trade Commission's web site at www.ftc.org. It has a lot of great resources regarding Internet scams, identity theft and other cons.