May 2007
Volume 3, Number 1
Table of Contents

Phony E-mail and Old-fashioned Scams

By Lloyd D. Cohen

The pitch used by the sideshow barkers to hook an audience used to fascinate me as much as the oddities themselves. The pitch, that would always hook me, was the one for The Amazing Gorilla-Woman. In that exhibit, I would see a model morph into a gorilla. Then, without fail, the transmuted gorilla would become so fierce that it immediately broke down the bars of its cage, causing the barker to exclaim, “The gorilla is loose, run for your lives.” Thereupon, the tent would immediately empty with each patron leaving the cost of admission far behind. Nowadays you do not have to cruise the sideshows to find scams because hucksters will e-mail their pitches right to you.

A popular pitch currently circulating the Internet is known among fraud-busters as the “419 scam.” Named after the section of Nigerian law used to bust the original perpetrators, the scheme has crossed borders and variations now abound.  It may appear in your e-mail as something like this:  Someone claiming to be an employee of a foreign bank gives a pretext for contacting you and launches into a long and sad story. The sender explains that an out-of-county depositor died leaving millions in a personal account with no heirs. However, the money can be claimed by anyone without suspicion as long as it is transferred out of his country. Further, he is in a position with the bank to expedite such requests. In return for your help he offers to split the millions with you. Simply disclose some personal information along with your bank account number and the millions will be transferred to you. He will meet you later to split the money.

In reality, this type of e-mail is randomly sent to a myriad of recipients every day. If you disclose your information, then instead of having money transferred into your account, all of your money will be taken out of it. A host of national and international fraud laws are broken by scammers like these. Recently the U.S. Department of Justice established the Internet Fraud Initiative to coordinate law enforcement of this problem.Consumers may log complains through the Internet Fraud Complaint Center by contacting  The Federal Trade Commission also lists the most frequently reported scams at

Modern scammers have become very bold. They may now dispense with the long sad story and delivery of a personal assurance. They may just blatantly ask you to disclose your personal data. These hi-tech fraudsters attempt to convince consumers to reveal their private information through official looking fake Web sites that request up-dates or verifications of your information.  This crime is called phishing and it comes with a one-two punch. First, your identity information is harvested. Then, the information is used to obtain money or credit.

All scams, whether old or internet are essentially crimes of persuasion wherein the perpetrator makes a play for your trust. Traditionally, your trust may have been negotiated through personal contact and an elaborate pitch. However, in our fast-passed modern times, the fraudsters may just pander to an image or relationship that you have come to trust. The Better Business Bureau, found at, recommends that you treat all unsolicited e-mail requests for personal information with great suspicion. When in doubt, telephone the inquiring business and personally verify the legitimacy of any request.


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