Email scams - how to avoid being duped

Email scams are on the rise, but commonsense is the best defence.
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  • Updated:3 Dec 2008

01.Australia among top scammers

Man fishing

Every day, masses of spam emails advertising Viagra, Rolex watches or hot investment tips slip into inboxes all around the world.

According to security firm MessageLabs, almost 70 per cent of all email in Australia in August 2008 was spam and we rank in the top 10 list of countries including China, the United States and France with similar volumes of spam.

There’s no doubt that spam is a gigantic pain in the e-butt — after all, who wants all those annoying emails clogging up their inbox?

However, not all spam is innocuous. Some emails are scams that trick you into disclosing personal information by impersonating banks, entice you with special offers, and urge you to click on a link and divulge your details in a separate website. This type of spam is far more serious — and is known as phishing (which alludes to ‘fishing’) for personal information.

Please note: this information was current as of December 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.

In brief

  • Scams and phishing emails come in many forms.
  • These emails try to obtain personal or financial information from you.
  • Be cautious at all times with your personal details.
  • Protect yourself by using security software, spam email filters and the security settings in your web browser.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 5.8 million Australians were exposed to a scam in the 12 months to December 2007. In dollar terms 453,100 victims lost money, which equates to a combined financial loss of almost one billion dollars ($977 million). Approximately 5.7% (or 329,000 people) became victims by responding to a scam and supplying personal information and/or money, or seeking more information.

Identifying dangerous emails

Scams come in many varieties, such as emails about lottery wins, US Green Card work visa applications or home mortgage applications. And who hasn’t heard about the Nigerian banking scam where you make your account available to hold a large sum of money for a generous fee?

Phishing emails purporting to be from banks, financial institutions and online payment services tell you to update personal details, warn about an imminent account expiry, or urge you to follow a link to check accounts. These emails try to dupe you into believing that they’re from a legitimate organisation about an account or transaction you need to follow up. The email includes a link that is supposed to be the company’s website, but instead directs you to a bogus site that will collect your personal information.

If it sounds alarming that’s because it is — every day, people fall for these simple tricks and give away their vital details. The golden rule for all internet users, novices and experts alike, is to be extremely wary about responding to emails from unfamiliar addresses, people or organisations. As a rule, you should never reveal any personal information to unknown organisations, people or websites.

Commonsense is key

The good news, however, is that commonsense will go a long way to protecting you from falling victim to the scammers: after all, if you didn’t enter a lottery, what’s the chance you will have won millions? But, as with many things on the net, it can sometimes be hard to discern what’s real and what’s fake. And the scammers are constantly trying new and more inventive ways to trick people.

The best protection is to arm yourself with the most up-to-date information on what threats are out there and how to avoid them. And so to help you, your family and your friends we’ve created an easy-to-follow guide to help you recognise the scammers and avoid their traps. The best way to beat the scammers is for all net users to be armed with the right information. After all, knowledge is power.

For more information see the Australian government website Stay Smart Online.

Report a Scam

  • Use the ScamWatch website.
  • You can also report a scam on NetAlert or contact your local police office and let them take it from there.
  • Contact your bank or financial institution to report a phishing attack sent in its name.
  • Contact the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) about banking and financial scams on Fido and click on the Scams & warnings tab.
  • Go to the Australian High Tech Crime Centre and click on Technology enabled crime types and then Online fraud to report online fraud.
  • Go to AusCert then click on About AusCERT and then Report Incident to complete an online incident report form.
  • Use ACMA’s spamMATTERS reporting software for Microsoft’s Outlook email client. Go to spamMATTERS and click on For the public > Consumer & community advice > Spam & e-Security.


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