Control and intimidation underlie email threats: Internet Scambusters #452
Email threats and other types of intimidation from people you don't know are mostly empty threats -- but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take them seriously.
Understanding how and why scammers use these scare tactics can help us deal with them, and keep a sense of perspective.
This week we explore the most common types of email extortion and telephone threats and outline simple courses of action you can take in most cases.
Now, here we go...
How to Deal with Computer, Phone and Email Threats
Email threats have been around pretty much as long as email has. The aim is to strike fear into the hearts of the recipients and prompt them to send money or, in some cases, do nothing at all except spread the threat to others.
They also come by phone, in text messages, or as pop-ups on your computer screen -- and a few of them are both clever and convincing.
Here are the most common types of threats -- and what you can do about them.
Assassination Text and Email Threats
This is the most frequent form of email extortion.
These email threats usually involve a supposed hitman who offers to let you off the hook, and even tells you who commissioned the hit -- for a big fee, usually between $10,000 and $20,000 but sometimes up to $150,000.
We've written about this crime before in our article, Hitman Emails: Scams or Urban Legends?
It's still going on, with scammers able to make their claims much more convincing by pretending they have you under surveillance.
If they've been able to get hold of your address, for instance, they'll download an aerial or street-level photo from the Internet and send it to you.
And, as we've reported in previous issues, it's quite easy to get an awful lot more info online about someone these days so the threat looks real.
Most recently, cell phone text messages and instant messaging programs have been used for the assassination email threat.
Action: The usual giveaway is poor English usage -- these things come from Nigeria and Eastern Europe -- and a demand that the money is sent via an untraceable cash wiring service.
As far as we know, there's never been a single instance of these email threats being real but you should still take it seriously and report it to the police.
Don't reply to an email threat or ask the crook to desist; don't tell them you reported them to the police; all that just plays into their hands.
Blackmail-type Email Threats
Another common form of email extortion comes from someone with whom you've done or tried to do questionable business in the past.
These might, for example, be bogus online pharmacies or "adult" sites.
Victims receive a message saying their activities have been monitored, and threatening to inform the authorities or someone in your family if you don't pay up.
Sometimes, the sender even claims to be from the police, customs or other official agency and demands payment of an instant "fine." Otherwise, they warn, you face a bigger penalty plus public exposure.
Action: This can be a difficult one if you've been visiting sites you shouldn't, especially those where you might have made a payment and therefore disclosed personal information about yourself.
The best advice is not to visit them in the first place. For more about online pharmacies, see this Scambusters report, Using Online Pharmacies: Recommended Practices and How to Spot Fakes.
But one thing we can say for sure is that if you make any kind of payment, the blackmailer will be back for more.
And, of course, law enforcement, customs and all other public bodies don't communicate this way and certainly don't levy fines by email.
Most likely the scammers will never report your activities, but remember this: Blackmail is a crime. Try to muster the courage to report it.
Chain Letter Email Threats
Nasty people or those with nothing better to do seem to get a kick out of sending off email threats in the form of chain letters that warn of dire consequences if you don't forward them to, say, 10 of your buddies.
Some contain "true" examples of what supposedly happened to those who failed to do so, including family deaths and all manner of personal disasters.
Sometimes, too, these sickos say they have a program that can check if you complied with the pass-it-on request (they don't).
Sadly, many people who actually realize this is a scam still forward these email threats to others with an apologetic note explaining they were frightened and have done it "just in case," and pleading with the recipients not to return it.
Action: These scammers are control freaks and you should ignore their email threats. Don't forward them -- you're just passing your fears to someone else. Whatever your beliefs about who's pulling the strings of life, you can be sure it's not the writer of the email.
Mentally track back to this pathetic idiot, sitting at his desk trying to dream up ways of frightening people: Where did he or she get the warning from? And how did they know, before they even sent it out, about the supposed dire consequences suffered by those who didn't forward it?
That's logically impossible! And even if it were possible, who told them about it?
The best you can do, in addition to deleting it, is to write to whoever sent it and ask them to take you off their chain letter address list.
Read more about chain letters in our earlier report, Chain Letters: Break the Chain.
Advance Payment Email and Phone Threats
More and more people are wising up to advance payment scams -- where you receive a forged check either as payment for something you're selling or with a request that you forward part of the payment by wiring cash.
Most of us now toss these in the trash. As a result, some scammers have started phoning and emailing victims claiming they've kept the money they were sent and demanding an instant refund, again via a money wire.
This is nothing short of intimidation.
Action: Continue to ignore them but keep a record of all correspondence and calls. If they persistently call or otherwise harass you, consider contacting the police. As a last resort, change your phone number and email account.
Email and Telephone Threats About Debts
Making email and phone threats claiming debt payments are past due has become increasingly common during the recent economic downturn.
Sometimes people really are late with payments, and collection of unpaid debts is passed to specialist collection agencies, some of whom use unacceptable strong-arm tactics to get customers to pay up.
They may threaten legal proceedings and a bad mark on your credit record, although threatening physical harm is unusual -- and illegal.
But scammers also target people to make payments on non-existent loans.
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) the scammer usually claims the victim has failed to repay a payday loan.
"The fraudsters relentlessly call the victim's home, cell phone, and place of employment," says IC3. "They refuse to provide to the victims any details of the alleged payday loans and become abusive when questioned.
"The callers threaten victims with legal actions, arrests, and in some cases physical violence if they refuse to pay. In many cases, the callers even resort to harassment of the victim's relatives, friends, and employers."
Action: If you are genuinely overdue on a loan payment or can see that you may fall behind in future, contact your lender immediately and work out a plan for repayment.
If you don't owe money to anyone, simply don't pay. For more guidance, see this IC3 statement, Telephone Collection Scam Related to Delinquent Payday Loans.
In either situation, if you're physically threatened or feel in danger, contact the police.
Computer Threats via Pop-Ups
Crooks use so-called ransomware pop-ups to warn victims that their machines have been compromised in some way and that, unless they pay instantly, their computers will cease to function and they will lose data.
In some cases, the crooks may actually take control of hard drives on a computer and make them inaccessible until you pay.
Action: We covered this subject in an earlier report, Special Issue on Ransomware.
It's either just a mischievous pop-up originating on the page you're visiting, or you have a virus on your PC. So, if you're going to pay any money at all, it should be on genuine anti-virus software from a well-known provider, or to a local PC tech who knows how to put it right.
That's a wrap for this week -- sorry for the rather long read.
Intimidation, extortion and control freaks will do everything they can to scare you into bending to their will.
But now you know a little more about their game and you'll be better armed when those phone and email threats arrive.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!