Top 7 Most Common Online Scams of the Decade

With 2010 drawing to a close, PandaLabs has released a ranking of the decade’s most widespread scams on the Internet, including 419 scam, ploys involving beautiful foreign women, and money-mule schemes based on too-good-to-be-true job offers.

“As with all the classic scams that predate the Internet, many of the numerous users that fall for these tricks and lose their money are reticent to report the crime,” said PandaLabs Technical Director Luis Corrons. “If recovering the stolen money was difficult in the old days, it is even harder now because criminals’ tracks are often lost across the web. The best defense is to learn how to identify these scams and avoid taking the bait.”

Typically, online scams follow a similar pattern: Cyber criminals contact their victim through email or on a social network. The intended victim is then asked to respond by email, phone, fax or some other medium. Once the user takes the bait, the criminals will try to gain their victim’s trust, finding any excuse to ask for money.

The most frequent scams identified by PandaLabs over the last 10 years, based on their distribution and the frequency, are as follows:

Nigerian Scam: The 419 scam–named after its origin’s zip code–was the first Internet scheme to appear. It usually begins with victims receiving an email, claiming to be from someone who needs to move a lot of money out of a country, often Nigeria. Targeted victims are promised a hefty reward if they help. However, if they take the bait, they will be asked to forward an initial sum to help pay bank fees, often up to $1,000. Once they have sent the money, their contact disappears–along with their heard-earned money.

Lotteries: Similarly to the Nigerian scam, victims receive an email claiming they have won the lottery. The email asks for individuals’ details in order to transfer the winnings. As seen with 419 scam, victims are asked up front for $1,000, or a similar sum to cover bank fees and other expenses.

The Girlfriend Ploy: A beautiful girl, often from Russia, contact male victims, wanting to get to know them better. She will always be young and desperate to visit the victim in his home country. She wants to come immediately, but at the last moment, a problem arises and she needs money for her flight ticket or other travel expenses. Not surprisingly, after she receives the money, she disappears.

Job Offers:Victims receive a message from a foreign company looking for financial agents in their country. The work is easy; they can do it from home and earn up to $3,000 for just three or four hours of work. Once victims accept the offer, they will be asked for their bank-account details. In this case, they will be used to help steal money from people whose bank-account information has been stolen by cyber criminals. The money will be transferred directly to the victim’s account, and they will then be asked to forward the money via Western Union. Victims unknowingly become money mules, and when police investigate the theft, victims will be considered accomplices.

Facebook/Hotmail: Criminals obtain logins to access an account on Facebook, Hotmail or a similar site. They then change the passwords so that the real user can no longer access the account, and send a message to all contacts saying the account holder is on vacation and has been robbed just before coming home. They still have flight tickets, but need between $500 and $1,000 for the hotel.

Compensation: This more recent ruse originates from the Nigerian scam. The -mail claims a fund has been set up to compensate victims of the Nigerian scam, and their address is listed as among those possibly affected. Victims are offered money, often up to $1 million. Naturally, as in the original scam, they will need to pay an advance sum of roughly  $1,000.

The Mistake: Fueled by the financial crisis and the difficulty some have selling their homes and other high-value items, this scam has become very popular in recent months. The criminal contacts someone who has published a classified ad on a site such as Craigslist who is selling a house or other high-cost item. With great enthusiasm, the scammers agree to buy whatever it is and quickly send a check, but for an incorrect amount that is always more than the agreed sum. The seller will be asked to return the difference. The check will bounce and the victim will lose any money they transferred to the criminal.

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