There are many different varieties of internet fraud, and we have set out some of the more common formats below and in our specific scams section. If you think you may have been scammed but cannot find something here relating to your specific circumstances, please do not assume that you are safe. These scams are just the most frequent ones, and there are many others.
Common types of scams
Advance fee frauds
Also known as 419 scams, after the section of the criminal law in Nigeria which makes them illegal, or "Nigerian" frauds. These take many forms, but all feature the lure of a huge sum of money or a consignment of jewellery, gold, or other valuables. They are called advance fee frauds because they all involve the victim being asked to pay fees in advance. The fees are said to be for a lawyer or barrister, court documents, registration or other formal payments needed, security company, courier or diplomat fees, or bribes. If the victim pays the fee, there will always be another one that needs to be paid before the money or consignment can be released, and this will continue until the victim realises it is a scam, or simply runs out of money to send. There is no consignment or huge sum of money - the entire story is a lie to get the victim to pay.
The most common lies told are that there is an over-invoiced contract with the government, an unclaimed bank account which will be forfeit if not claimed soon, a next-of-kin who has died and left the victim a fortune, a political refugee (or the widow/son/daughter of one) who has valuables he cannot take out of the country alone, a dying person who wants to distribute huge sums to charity before they die, or an investor who has a large sum of money to invest in the victim's country. These are all lies, told merely to set the scene for the request for money from the victim.
In these, the scammer will pretend to be from a legitimate or a fictitious lottery and will tell the victim they have won a huge sum of money.
Again, there will be the endless requirements for fees to register, to claim the prize, to pay a lawyer or the courier company delivering the winnings and so on, until the victim has given up or run out of money. The scammer will pretend that it is a random lottery, often based on email addresses, to get round the fact that you cannot win a lottery you have never entered. Legitimate lottery sites, names and logos are often stolen or copied and used to bolster the pretence.
Cheque/check or money order scams
There are many variations on check scams and we have more information in our specific scams section. The most popular are overpayment for goods, investor scams, and the company agent or representative scam. If you have been asked by someone you don't know to cash a check, money order or traveller's check and send on the proceeds or goods, please act with extreme caution.
The basics are that the scammer asks the potential victim to receive payment (whether for goods being sold, investment, or from a "customer" of the scammer) and to forward all or part of the proceeds.
The check/money order is fake, forged or stolen. The scammer hopes that the victim's bank will not realise initially, and will clear it. The victim sends money on, the bank later realises and debits the victim's account, and the victim has then lost the money sent on.
The bank will almost certainly not be liable, and the victim may also find that their account is closed and/or that they are arrested or investigated by the police for money laundering.
Black money or "wash-wash"
The scammer claims to have a large supply of dollar bills which have been treated with a black dye to disguise that it is money.
If treated with chemicals, the money will be cleaned up and turned into legitimate currency. The victim is asked to pay for the chemicals to make the transformation, but the fee will be much less than the total value of the currency, so the victim thinks there is a profit to be made.
The victim may be shown photos of the black money or invited to visit the scammer for a live demonstration of the cleaning process. In fact, all the so-called money is just black paper, and the cleaning demonstration relies on sleight of hand to substitute a real banknote or bill for the piece of black paper.
The scammer pretends to be looking for love, and engages the affection of their potential victim, often using photos from the internet to present an attractive view of themselves.
They target people on dating sites or in chat rooms and will often say that they are in love remarkably quickly in an effort to attach the victim to them. Once they think their target is falling for the lies, the scammer will ask for help with living expenses or the cost of a visa or flight to the victim's home country.
Or the scammer may say that a relative is ill and needs urgent medical attention, or that they need help paying for their education.
These play on the good nature of people moved by disasters and the misfortunes of others.
The scammer will claim to be an orphan in need of assistance, or a pastor or churchman looking for contributions to the work of his ministry.
Remarkably quickly after almost every natural disaster in recent years, there have been scammers capitalising on it and pretending to be a charity helping the victims. Examples include 9/11, the Indonesian tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina.