How Is Your Scam IQ? Take the Email Headline Test

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The following post comes from Christopher Elliott at partner site Mintlife.

Have you ever heard of the Post Office email scam? Neither had I, until I stumbled upon it at the Postal Inspector’s website. And then I heard about Patricia Newton, a woman who almost fell for it recently.

Here’s how it works: You get an email that says you have a package waiting for you. It looks pretty legit, but the link leads you to a file that infects your PC, potentially exposing your personal information to thieves.

It all made me wonder if there’s ever a time when you can tell, based just on the headline in an email, that something’s a scam. On a scale of 1 to 10 – 1 the easiest to detect, 10 the hardest – Newton’s ranked a solid 7. Her subject line, “Postal Notification,” almost made sense — except the post office doesn’t notify customers in that way.

I call these “delete immediately” emails. They usually end up in the spam folder, but every now and then, they land in your mailbox, where they wait to be opened.

Here are five of the most common ones, along with their level of difficulty:

‘Your urgent response will be highly anticipated and appreciated.’

This is scammy hyperbole, meant to make you click on the message right away. It’s also a dead giveaway. No one who wants you to read a message urgently puts that in the headline. This particular example, which came to me by way of someone calling himself Ali Sulaman from Burkina Faso, West Africa, asked if I wanted to claim $20 million that had been “abandoned.”

It’s a classic Nigerian scam, where you pay the scammer money to get money. Don’t fall for it. Delete it. Now.

Level of difficulty: 4, for correct grammar and less scamtastic words.

‘CONGRATULATION!!! YOU HAVE JUST WON $USD 1,000,000′

Send this one to the trash right away, because I can guarantee you haven’t won “$USD 1,000,000.” This particular email, which assures me I’m the “lucky” winner in today’s “Heinrich Foundation Int’l Lottery Promotional Program” is so obviously a scam, based on the headline alone. I’ll break it down for you: bad grammar (“congratulation”), excessive punctuation (“!!!”), and sloppy style ($USD).

Suffice it to say, if you’d really won a cool mil, they’d find a better way to contact you. Send this one straight to the trash without opening it.

Level of difficulty: 2, for ALL UPPERCASE and obvious scam content.

‘Pharmacy Store: Viagra+Cialis!’

Um, don’t you need a prescription for those drugs? Yes, last time I checked, you do. But you could lose a whole lot more than your shirt when you buy from this email, because if you click on the link provided, you’ll go to a Russian website that will try to “phish” your account information, like your email passwords and credit cards.

If you really need Viagra or Cialis, talk to your doctor — not a scammer in Russia. This email’s obviously bogus.

Level of difficulty: 1, because everyone should know better by now.

‘You have Facebook notifications pending’

This is a hard one, because once you open it, it looks almost exactly like an email from Facebook. But once you click on the link, it will take you to something that looks exactly like a Facebook login page, and when you input your email address and password, it will send your credentials to scammers, who will use it for their own nefarious purposes.

Before hitting “delete” ask yourself: Do I have my Facebook notifications by email turned on? If you do, this could be legit (I would recommend turning them off; then you wouldn’t have to worry about this one).

Level of difficulty: 9, because it could be true — but then again, you could get scammed.

‘Over 5000 Urgent Jobs Across 20 Categories. Apply Now!’

It’s easy to press the “delete” key when you already have a job, but what if you need one? What if you think you might need one? Gotcha! (This email takes you to a suspicious site based in Japan, which, I’m willing to wager a few bucks, will not provide you with your dream job.)

Jobs scams are so prevalent that the Federal Trade Commission has its own scam category. That’s pretty bad.

Level of difficulty: 5, since in this economy, everyone’s circulating the old resume.

Trust no one

If you would have deleted all of these, based on their headlines, then CONGRATULATIONS !!! You’ve won Ten Million $US Dollars !!!

Well, no, not really.

But don’t get too confident. These headlines are fairly easy to spot but the truly professional scams are far more difficult to pinpoint, based solely on the headline. And the scammers are getting smarter by the day.

The bottom line: Get a good spam filter, stay skeptical, and when you’re online, be like Fox Mulder: Trust no one.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side.

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