How to Spot Scam Emails


It used to be easy to spot scam emails. They were littered with grammatical and spelling errors, and their so-called Scammer Grammar was anything but what you'd expect from well-educated "barristers," Nigerian kings or executives from respected American corporations.

Well, the typos may remain - and not only because foreign-based fraudsters with weak command of English are often behind emails that hide malware-laden links or phish for sensitive information that could lead to identity theft.

Now, tech-savvy tricksters are purposely misspelling certain words to con you.

Sometimes the "error" is so minor that it's easy to miss. A website address that ends in ".cm" - rather than the more familiar ".com" - indicates that its domain is in Cameroon, unlikely to be the headquarters for your bank or credit card company.

Other times, scammers come up with their own creative spellings to increase the chances that their communications will slip through spam filters that target certain dubious phrases. One common trick: using the number "0" for the letter "o," as in "free m0rtgage qu0tes."

Increasingly, however, bogus emails are spot-on replicas that look and read "official."

Scammers use well-known logos of corporations and government agencies like the IRS and FBI, employ error-free and convincing wording, and even provide links that display an authentic website. But when clicked, your computer can be infected with malware.

So besides knowing that Uncle Sam doesn't send unsolicited email (especially with links), how can you tell what's legit?

Without clicking, hover your computer mouse over the link. When doing this, you should see the full website address. If it's not what appears in an email-offered link (say, a well-recognized company ending in ".com" or organization ending in ".org"), assume you're being directed to a scammer-run website. Again, be sure NOT to click.

Pay close attention to the ending letters, which indicate the country domains: For instance, ".it" is for Italy (not information technology) and ".co" is Colombia (not company). Others can be found here. Links that don't display the legitimate domain of a business (say, your bank) are red flags of impending fraud.

Copy and paste. If a URL doesn't appear when you hover over a link, use this alternative: Without clicking, copy and paste the email-provided link into a Microsoft Word document. Then right-click on the pasted link and select "Edit Hyperlink" from the menu that appears. This will open a pop-up window in Word that shows in the "Address" field the Web address to which the link directs. Then follow the above-mentioned tip-offs.

Look for personalization. What if you get an email purportedly from PayPal, your bank or credit card issuer that alleges a problem with your account, or says you need to update it, but begins with something like "Dear Valued Customer"? That's certainly a ruse to collect passwords, account numbers or other sensitive information. If it's about your account, it should have your name. Even if your name appears, consider contacting the supposed legitimate sender to verify the request before providing any details.

Beware of fiends who pose as friends. Sometimes, personalization can be bad - as when you get emails from people you recognize but that may not "read" as though they come from friends or family.

Sometimes, your email address may be gleaned from the address book of someone whose computer is infected with malware to enlist it as a " botnet" to send spam en masse - to all contacts in address books of all infected computers. (Assume your computer may be infected if your friends report getting suspicious emails from you.)

In another ruse called "scraping," cybercrooks use software that extracts - or "scrapes" - information from websites such as Facebook by programming keywords such as "spouse" and "friend" to collect those contacts in your social network.

Either way, the result can be "personalized" emails that may include your name in the subject line, such as "Hey, John: This is worth seeing." The body text may tout "miracle" weight-loss products whose details are promised in malware-laden links, or it may seek your credit card information. So before clicking, ask yourself: "Would my pal really send such stuff?" If not, hit the delete key.

Also, don't just trust recognized "sender" names; you should also look at the sender's email address. Assume it's a scam if that message from friend Susan Jones doesn't include the real email address of but instead has one such as

Photo: Saidul A. Shaari/

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network . You'll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud. You'll also gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement officials and people in your community who will keep you up to date on the latest scams in your area.

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