Hoax Emails

Hoax emails are a particularly annoying type of spam. Many of them are simply malicious in nature and intended to cause annoyance and clutter the internet. However some hoaxes may more properly be called scam emails and have more organised criminality behind them, intended to try and coax money or personal details from you.


Why do I get hoax emails?

If you’re a normal email user, you probably get at least one hoax message per week, often forwarded to you by am unsuspecting friend or relative. Some hoax messages are easy to spot, others aren’t. Perhaps the most difficult ones to ignore and delete are the chain letters concerning missing children. This form of spam is a problem because it appears to be legitimate and, naturally, one wants to assist in the efforts to help find an abducted child.

However, experts believe that using email to inform the public of an abduction is not effective as there’s no way to update or recall a message after it starts being randomly blasted across the internet to hundreds, then thousands and, maybe, millions of online inboxes. In some cases, the child is quickly located but the email takes on a life of its own, spreading around the world via the internet, and still popping up years later. In other cases, immature individuals create a hoax just for the thrill of getting people excited and anxious, seeing how big a splash they can make as the hoax spreads around the world in days or weeks.

Most email hoaxes about missing children contain very few details you’d expect to see in a plea for help, such the child’s height, weight, eye colour, last known location, or other specific detail.

How to avoid being hoaxed

One of the simplest ways to avoid being taken in by a hoax or participating in a chain email’s distribution is to have comprehensive computer security software such as McAfee® products. These include a spam filter that screens and segregates spam and phishing email messages. Be sure that whatever software you employ has automatic programme and anti-spam rule updates, so that your protection is always prepared for current threats.

Another way to handle a potential hoax email that may have slipped past your computer’s spam defense is simply to do some online research. It will only take a few moments. Before you forward an email, do everyone a favour and enter the “missing” child’s name or the subject line into your favorite search engine. It should be obvious that when you see phrases like “urban legend,” “fiction,” and “hoax” in the search-result descriptions. Alternatively, use online hoax resource sites such as www.snopes.com or www.hoax-slayer.com  to provide more specific searches or information.

In general, avoid forwarding messages because it exposes your email address and your friends’ email addresses to the possibility of ending up on spammers’ mailing lists.

Three key checks are:

  • Look for a phrase such as “Forward this to everyone you know!” or “Make sure all your friends see this”. The more urgent the plea, the more suspect the message.
  • Look for denials like “This is NOT a hoax”. They typically mean the opposite of what they say.
  • Watch for overly emphatic language, as well as frequent use of UPPERCASE LETTERS and multiple exclamation points!!!!!!!

Scam emails

Advance fee (sometimes known as ‘419’) fraud

This common scam involves you receiving a spam email supposedly from a wealthy foreigner needing your help to move millions of dollars from their homeland to yours. Often a large percentage of this fortune – which might be claimed to be unspent government grants, oil revenues or the like – is offered if you agree to help. You’ll be asked to provide a small fee to help arrange the transfer of funds and for your bank details. Always delete these emails without replying.

Prize fraud

A spam email may notify you that you’ve ‘won’ a cash prize and ask you for your bank details so the money can be transferred. Even if you go in for competitions regularly, check this email carefully to confirm it’s for one you’ve entered. You should check directly with the company concerned. In any event, never provide your bank details in a reply an email like this.

What about these lottery emails I get? Are they genuine?

No. Most people don’t fall for these lottery scam emails but unfortunately some people out there in cyberspace must take the bait because scam artists are still sending out these spam messages routinely. They continue cluttering up email boxes with their too-good-to-be-true announcements such as “You have just won £1,000,000!”

Your first tip-off that this is a scam is that you won a lottery without even entering into it! It may also help to stand back and consider the point of a real lottery – to raise money for a charity or a government. If there’s no mechanism in place for contributions, then how could there possibly be any money to award to a “winner”?

Most of a lottery scam letter will be filled with bad grammar and confusing and unprofessional wording. For example:

“Please note that your lucky winning number falls within our International Booklet representative office here in Thailand as indicated in your winning numbers. Your fund is now available for claim. Due to the mix up of some numbers and email address (sic), we request you to quote your Reference and Batch numbers…”

Reporting a scam email

If you’ve been a victim of an attempted internet fraud, The Metropolitan Police Fraud Alert website contains lots of useful information on recognising common scams and criminal activity. It’s at www.met.police.uk/fraudalert