What you need to know about Advance Fee Fraud Lottery Scams

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Open your e-mail account and check the spam/junk folder. More likely than not, you have at least one message claiming that you've won some sort of lottery. These e-mails come from strangers: 419 Advance Fee Fraud scammers who harvest e-mails from all over the Internet and send out these "You've won!" scripts.

From a recent consumer email, Ben from Texas writes;

"...I know there are a lot of scams out there but my 72 year old mom isn't in tuned to them.  She received a You've won lottery email and believed it. She  was almost fooled by it and know others will be scammed too. I thought I would share this experience with you so that you will warn others. These scams look real and many senior citizens will be falling for them..."

Scammers send these emails hoping someone like your mom will read it, believe it and send their money in.  Being educated about how these cons work will make it easier for you to identify them as scams - and, hopefully, help teach other people how to avoid becoming victims.Here is everything that you need to know about e-mail lottery scams;

How the Scammers Find You
When you leave your e-mail address anywhere on the Internet, you're opening up your account for spamming and scamming. The bad boys and girls of the Internet harvest e-mail addresses and add them to their lists.

In some cases, these scammers will buy your information from less-scrupulous companies. Many Web sites are very good about protecting your information, but some will sell the info to anybody with enough money.

Advance Fee Fraud scammers might send the same script to hundreds, or even thousands, of users. They bomb as many in-boxes as possible because, the more e-mail addresses they hit, the more likely they are to find a victim.

You can reduce the amount of spam or scam e-mail that you get by enabling filters on your e-mail account. These filters will send a good chunk of the unwanted messages to the appropriate folders so that you don't have to see them at all.

You can also protect your primary e-mail account by giving a secondary, "throwaway" address any time you use the Internet. When you sign up for an account at a Web site, give a secondary address that you don't want to use for any real correspondence. You should also use this secondary account when you sign guestbooks, subscribe to mailing lists, etc.

What the Scammers Say
The e-mail lotto scam follows the same, basic storyline no matter which scammer is running the con. The e-mails will all announce that you have won the lottery. They will all instruct you to contact somebody in order to claim your prize.

There are two distinct types of lies about the prize's origin. Some scammers impersonate legitimate companies, like Yahoo! or Toyota. They claim that "their" company is giving away money in a lottery or prize drawing. So, you will receive messages that are allegedly from legitimate, well-known corporations.

Many of the other scammers pretend to represent legitimate lottery commissions. The Texas State Lottery, for example, is a real lotto. The scammers pretend to be affiliated with this commission. The story seems somewhat believable because the lottery commission really exists. The scammers know that this lends credit to their lies, so they take advantage of the familiarity and use it against their victims.

Some scammers will even include, in their scripts, the real lottery commission's actual physical address. This makes detecting the lie a bit more difficult, because your search for the real commission's address will match the one that the scammers gave you.

Some scripts will have a fictitious "ticket number" or "claim number." Rest assured that the scammer did not make up a unique number for each victim. Everybody who receives that copy of the script has the same ticket/claim number. You just don't know this because the scam e-mails go all over the world. The odds of you meeting another user who happens to have that same number are not good. The scammer is perfectly happy to take this tiny risk because the payoff, if he finds a suitable victim, can be huge.

Depending on the scammer, your e-mail might or might not include fake documents. These fake images range from photo IDs to falsified lists of winners. The scammer, or one of his associates, used a computer to create these fakes. And in the case of identification, the passport or license might be stolen. Just because the ID appears to be real does not mean that you can trust the person who e-mailed it to you. The passport could very well be genuine: it just does not belong to the person who is e-mailing you!

How the Scammers Make Money
When a victim replies to the initial e-mail, the scammer will do his best to portray himself as a genuine businessman. He will send you documents. He might give you a telephone call, which is reassuring to many victims. He could send more documents, all of which are fake or stolen, to make his lies more believable.

Soon, however, the scammer will tell you how much money you need to send his way. He will, more often than not, ask you to wire money via Western Union or Money Gram. Scammers have found ways to claim WU and MG funds without showing their real ID. This maintains their anonymity, which of course makes them that much more difficult to capture.

After you wire the first payment, you probably think that your check will soon be on its way. However, the con artist will return soon and ask you for another payment. There is probably a reasonable-sounding explanation for this, too. The scammer might claim that you need to pay taxes on the funds. He could tell you that, because you don't live in the country where the lottery or drawing took place, you must pay additional fees. There might be some other explanation, too.

You will continue wiring money to the scammer until you either run out of cash or finally realize that you're dealing with a scammer. But because most Advance Fee Fraud scammers do their best to remain anonymous, they are difficult to trace. And even if law enforcement does capture a scammer, there is no guarantee that you will recover the money you've lost.

What You Can Do About Scammers
The best thing to do when you receive an Advance Fee Fraud e-mail is to delete the message. You cannot be scammed if you do not reply to the e-mail.

Unfortunately, you do not have a case with most law-enforcement agencies unless you have actually lost money to the scammer. Many agencies are very busy trying to trace and capture scammers who have conned victims. 

Even though scammers violate their e-mail providers' terms of service, reporting them in order to have their addresses closed is not likely to stop them -and may not be a good idea. If the scammers you've reported are being investigated, having their accounts closed can frustrate the investigators. If law-enforcement agents lose the trail, they might not be able to pick it back up again.

Another excellent tactic against Advance Fee Fraud scammers, and others like them,  is raising awareness and warning/educating unsuspecting potential victims. If you make sure that everybody you care about is familiar with these scams, you're making the scammers' lives more difficult. The fewer potential victims there are in the world, the more these con artists will have to work to find somebody to cheat.

Think fraud! If not now, when?
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I think that sometimes scams like this become like a gambling addiction . . . the victim thinks that the NEXT time will be the BIG one and they don't want to take the chance of missing out on that.

I also suggest that people Google the name, email address or even a portion of the text from the email. This will often lead you to a website like ours where someone else has posted information about this scam.

Shawn Mosch
Co-Founder of ScamVictimsUnited.com
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419 scams come in many forms and have ruined many lives. Given the nature of e-mail and its ease of creation, it is rare for any investigation into such a manner to be conclusive of any relevant evidence. As you mentioned, the best way to counter the scammers' efforts is to educate others and make such stories common knowledge.
-TeleSign Matt

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