Living in our modern, interconnected world means navigating a minefield of potential online scams. Indeed, no sooner does a new technology emerge on the market than scammers find a way to exploit it for criminal financial gain. Email fraud schemes have existed for years, but some unfortunate souls still fall prey to ever more sophisticated techniques.

Until computers come equipped with consumer warnings, individuals must educate themselves about current attempts to exploit users’ financial and other personal data. Many email scams look extremely legitimate. Following certain precautions can help people protect their money, their reputation and their credit.

Gone Phishing

Phishing scams originated way back in the AOL days of the late 1990s. Phishing occurs when hackers send unsolicited emails to hook unsuspecting targets by instructing them to take action by clicking on a link or replying with personally identifiable information (PII). Cybercriminals prey on user emotion by threatening legal action or promising too-good-to-be-true gains.

Spoofing refers to the practice of disguising the senders’ true email address to make users believe the correspondence truly came from a trusted source. For example, an email may appear to have come from PayPal or from a recognized financial institution such as Bank of America. Because the email looks legit, users reply with the information requested or click on a link leading to a fake website where their data is collected.

Many cybercriminals ironically get user information such as banking logins and Social Security numbers by alerting unsuspecting folks that unusual activity has occurred on their account or that their identification number has been linked to a crime spree. Afraid of legal or financial consequences, people take what they think are the right steps to protect their identity, unwittingly playing into the fraudsters’ hands.

Common Email Scams

Not all online thieves scare users into giving up their PII, though many do. Others promise huge financial rewards for minimal time and work investment.

Nearly every regular computer user has heard a twist on the Nigerian prince scam. To defraud the innocent, phishers send emails posing as high-ranking political figures in exile, requesting aid in transferring their massive fortune out of the country. These scammers request their targets send them a comparatively small sum via Western Union or another wire service to cover legal costs — and, of course, the millions promised in exchange for this upfront fee never materializes.

On the negative side, every year during tax season, cyber bandits send spoof emails impersonating IRS representatives accusing individuals of owing past due tax. Some ask readers to verify their Social Security number, which hackers then use for identity theft, while others go so far as threatening incarceration if victims fail to pay. Government officials never initiate taxpayer contact via email, so don’t open any messages claiming to be from the IRS or Department of the Treasury.

2018 saw many natural disasters, and thieves wasted no time setting up charity email scams. Cybercriminals appearing to represent the American Red Cross or other legitimate non-profit organizations bilk good-hearted folks wanting to help those in need. When you’re donating to charity, always type the URL for the organization supported directly into a browsers’ address bar instead of clicking on any emailed links.

Protecting Yourself from Fraud

Since bad scams sometimes sound so good, how can people protect themselves? The first and foremost way to avoid falling prey to email scams is to avoid opening correspondence from unfamiliar senders. Just about all email protocols contain spam filters, so set privacy settings high to filter out the most junk.

Never open unsolicited email attachments. Launching these attachments can allow keystroke-capturing programs to install without a users’ knowledge, granting cyber thieves access to every keystroke entered, including banking passwords.

Likewise, avoid clicking on links in emails. If an email claims to come from a financial institution or business regularly patronized, reach out to the organization directly to confirm the legitimacy of the correspondence. Always log in to online banking accounts by typing the institutions’ URL into the address bar — not by clicking on a link.

Keep computers and cell phones updated by automating the process on these devices. Set electronics to automatically update during periods of non-use, and power down gadgets during idle times. Keep curious kiddos out of sensitive email accounts by logging out before granting other users access to machines.

A Safer Email Experience

Electronic mail allows users to correspond with friends and family worldwide without paying for postage. Practice savvy email habits to harness these positive aspects of technological innovation without falling prey to online predators. Keeping current with the latest scams protects PII and makes the internet a safer place.

To learn about a few other popular online financial scams, check out this helpful infographic created by PSECU, a credit union in Pennsylvania.