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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

By MEGAN SCOTT, Associated Press (ASAP)
© July 18, 2006
Last updated: 10:51 PM

(By now, we know there is no money in stuffing envelopes and that dialing area codes 809, 284 and 876 does not cost $2,500 a minute (though it may cost you a pretty penny). We even know that a former minister of finance from Nigeria is not going to pay us in exchange for transferring millions of dollars into our bank account.

But con artists are developing more sophisticated online scams, say Internet experts. Audri Lanford, co-director of, says a friend with a doctorate recently asked her if Bill Gates was going to send her $245 for each e-mail she forwarded.

"If you don't know beforehand if it's a scam, it's very easy to get taken," says Lanford, who founded with her husband Jim about 12 years ago. "That's why we believe education is so important. Being smart is not enough to protect yourself."

Thanks to the Internet, running a scam is much easier these days, says Joel Smith, chief technology officer for AppRiver, an e-mail security firm. Old scams -- with come-ons like "get paid for reading books" -- required con artists to place an ad in a newspaper or call numbers from the phone book. Now con artists have instant access to millions of people.

Scammers can target specific people -- pretend to be their bank, their account or the IRS -- and make Web pages that look like the real sites. They can steal identities from people who enter personal information online and scam them out of thousands of dollars. Sadly, Smith says, because so many of these scammers are overseas, they don't get caught.

"The minimum cost to get involved in any of these scams is you're wasting time," says Jeff Cohen, vice president of ImageWorks, which builds Web sites for companies. "The maximum cost is identity theft. Then there is everything in between," an inbox clogged with spam, purchasing something you don't want, sending junk mail to everyone in your address book, a virus wiping out your files.

How can you keep this from happening to you? asap turned to the Internet gurus to find out what scams to watch out for.

PHISHING: These e-mails come from what appears to be your bank, Amazon or PayPal with the warning that your account has been compromised and you must confirm your information. Don't click on the link in the e-mail, warns Shane Keats, market strategist for McAfee SiteAdvisor, a Web security product. "You'll go to a phishing Web site that is designed to look exactly like the real McCoy except for one thing -- where you put in your user name and password, SSN, that information is going to a scammer's basement." Unsure whether an e-mail is a phishing attack? Check the account in question at its regular Web address. Keats also recommends installing security software that has an anti-phishing component.

HOT STOCK TIPS: Any stock tip that comes through e-mail is not a good thing, says Smith. Scammers find companies that are days away from closing, encourage everyone and their mamma to buy stock to drive the price up -- and then sell. "While they're making a profit as soon as they sell the stock, you're left holding a bunch of worthless stock," says Smith. Smith warns about other financial scams, such as offers to work from home (some people missed the memo on stuffing envelopes), lower your mortgage or reduce your debt.

BREAKAGE SITES: Trust us on this one. You are not getting a free iPod and PetCo is not going to give you a free $500 gift card for filling out a survey. Breakage sites lure consumers with bogus offers -- free gas, say, or a free camera. "As you start to fill out the survey, it gets longer and longer," says Keats. "When you get to the final page to say you're done (98 percent of people give up before this point), it redirects you to another breakage site that wants to send you through the same survey list." By that time, the scammer already has your e-mail address (they needed it to send the gift card). You'll get tons of spam, but no iPod.

LOTTERY SCAMS: "Right now, this is where we get the most questions," says Lanford. "You get an e-mail that you won some foreign lottery, and then there's a variety of reasons you have to pay them money. It could be that it's taxes, that it's just a processing fee, but very often people lose a couple thousand dollars." So we'll say this one loudly. THIS IS A SCAM!

OVERPAYMENT SCAM: Someone overseas responds to your classified ad on the Web, promising to send you a cashier's check for more than the amount of the item so you can pay for shipping. You get the check, deposit it in the bank and then ship the product. "It will take weeks, months for you to find out that the check was bad," says Lanford. "You will have already sent the item, so there won't be much that can be done."

MEDICINES: You get an e-mail about a drug that can help you lose weight while you sleep. You know it's a scam, but you have a glimmer of hope. About 50 percent of the time, these sellers don't even send you the drugs, says Smith. They take your credit card information and max it out. If you do get the drugs, be careful, he says. Most are coming from overseas, where there is no agency like the FDA watching out for consumer interests. You could be getting aspirin. And there is little clinical evidence that Hoodia, the new weight loss drug from the African cactus, is effective or safe.

E-MAIL FORWARDS: A terminally ill young girl has supposedly written a poem about taking the time to enjoy life. And you can help. For every person you forward this poem to, the American Cancer Society will donate money to her recovery. Unfortunately, flooding your friends' inboxes with this poem is not going to help this poor girl. "There's no way the originator of an e-mail can tell who an e-mail is being forwarded to or how many people got the forward," says Cohen. (The American Cancer Society warns about this scam on its site.) Same logic applies to the Bill Gates e-mails. Smith also says to be leery of e-mails asking for donations to tsunami or hurricane victims.

FAKE NEWS STORIES: Osama bin Laden is dead! Click here to see the pictures! You think, wow, "'That doesn't seem like a scam, that seems like someone has pictures of Osama bin Laden, let me download the files,'" says Smith. "It winds up being spyware and your computer becomes a spam sending machine." If you really want to know if a story is legit, check reliable news sources.

Megan Scott is an asap reporter.

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