How Scamming works and how to protect against it

In the age of the internet, scamming – a collective term for various forms of advance fraud – has reached a new dimension: Internet scammers reach more and more victims via mail and over social networks and fool them by deception. The forms of online scamming are diverse and range from the so-called “romance scamming” to empty promises of money or inheritance by e-mail. But what is scamming, really? What forms are there? How do scammers work, and how can you protect yourself against them?

What is scamming?

The term “scamming” is closely related to the criminological terminology of the advance fraud, but particularly includes many forms of online fraud. They both mean that the deceivers use false pretenses to try to persuade their victims into making a payment (“advance”). At the same time, they promise profits, inheritances, or slightly higher repayments.

Once criminals receive payment, contact is usually terminated immediately. A fulfillment of the aforementioned promise doesn’t follow, and the paid money is usually irretrievably lost. Making contact online generally happens via e-mail, but now contact can also be made through chat portals, messengers, social networks, and dating platforms. Scammers have even spread to online marketplaces for real estate, jobs, or used cars.

There have been scams by mail for centuries, but it was only in the 1980s that the approach became a mass phenomenon originating from Nigeria. In the course of the oil price decline, high inflation rates, and resulting poverty in Nigeria, some scammers sent massively falsified letters via post or fax to businessmen in western countries. They pretended to come from financial institutions which could deliver crude oil to the addressees – but only if an advance payment was made. The “Nigeria Connection” became the epitome of scamming. Many scamming mails still come from Nigeria and other West African countries today. The phenomenon became world-wide – victims and perpetrators sit at computers all around the globe.

But untrustworthy writing has become more professional: the documents often appear deceptively genuine, lead to elaborately fake logos, or try to appear more authentic when spying on a victim’s personal information. Websites, phone numbers, and entire networks of fake accounts were created to allow scammers to appear like real people. Public profiles on social networks provide criminals with the necessary data to underwrite letters with details about the professional or private life of their victim. Scamming mails sometimes also contain attachments with malware that search for data on the victim’s computer.

What forms of online scamming are there and how do they work?

Online scamming comes in many different shapes. For most, the goal of the criminals is the same: The want victims to make an advance payment toward their future savings. They lure people in with the prospect of falling in love, a fortune, an ultra-cheap apartment, or their dream job, or whatever particular circumstances are appropriate for each respective case: As a rule, a deposit or alleged flight ticket for the first date, etc., should be paid for by the victim. Here are for examples of the workings of online scamming:

Romance scamming

Widespread nowadays is so-called romance scamming: The scammer builds a relationship with their victim over messenger and dating platforms, giving compliment after compliment and simulating a supposedly true love. The victim quickly feels flattered and often develops an emotional dependence on the scammer. Because this creates the prospect of a personal meeting and leads to the anticipation of a date, they ask for money first. Most demand payment for dramatic circumstances, and pretend that money is required for the date: Generally, the scammer wants to buy a plane ticket, cover alleged hospital costs, requires medication, or must provide for fictitious children.

Romance scamming is a particularly painful experience in two respects for those affected: The victim is ripped off not only financially, but also emotionally. They’ve gotten their hopes up that they’ve found love, and the scammers make shameless use of the feelings and loneliness of their victims. Unfortunately, internet users continue falling into the trap and, on the basis of the supposed familiarity, are more than willing to offer up the money: Because scammers often lead their victims to believe in an absolutely unconditional love, for which they themselves would even accept expensive flights or relocations. If they ask for money shortly before the supposed departure, it’s difficult for many victims to refuse payment. They also appeal to the victim’s sympathy, which tends to make rejection even more difficult.

The scam is experiencing quite the upsurge, since internet dating is becoming increasingly popular and promising. Thousands of fake profiles are created every day. The FBI counted about $80 million in the second half of 2014 in the US alone that went to romance scammers. Not least of all due to the fact that the scammers are going to more and more effort: They even give out telephone numbers and don’t shy away from personal phone calls. In addition to the actual profile, they also falsify many more profiles and use them to befriend each other, so that the fictional characters on the platforms don’t appear socially isolated, but authentic instead.

Scamming with false promises of money

The classic: E-mails with promises of money have been part of the standard scamming repertoire since the early days of the internet. They go straight back to the methods of the Nigeria Connection of the 1980s and appeal to the desire of gaining “quick money” from their victim. Popular methods included false inheritances from distant relatives, or alleged payouts from a family treasure, as well as false lottery winnings or letters from benefactors who want to award the addressee with a generous commission as the administrator of a large donation. In most cases, an advance payment is required for alleged processing fees, emergency expenses, or taxes, in order for the promised money to be paid.

In this form of scamming, the paid money is also lost and the contact broken off after receiving the sum. There will never be any payment of the promised amount – especially since decoys are often used, from whose accounts the transferred money will immediately be transferred abroad. Often, these people are being conned themselves, being used as so-called financial agents who don’t even know where the funds come from that they are supposed to transfer on.

The process has been the same for decades, but the deception is always more elaborate: Now, the cover letters appear with professional letterheads and e-mail addresses, as well as with elaborate logos that at first glance make them look like authentic letters from lawyers, inheritance administrators, lottery companies, or banks. Scamming mails have also gotten more sophisticated in terms of language – the times of spoofed e-mails being easily identifiable via spelling and grammar errors are past.

Apartment scamming

Scammers aren’t only a nuisance on dating sites, but also on real estate websites: They advertise fake real estate listings for ridiculously low prices. The apartments are usually located in very popular districts of large cities, so that the interest of the victims is quickly aroused. So that the interested renter or buyer won’t have to personally encounter the fictitious apartment, scammers always give the excuse that they are in another country for work or are away traveling. In the mail exchanges they always build up trust and, oftentimes, even present sympathetic-looking vacation photos – of course, these are either fake or stolen, just like the photos of the supposed dream apartment.

At some point, the proposal comes to pay the deposit and the first month of rent in advance – which quickly results in several thousand dollars. In the prospective renter’s desperation, they will usually make the payment – without ever having seen the apartment. Scammers are particularly successful in cities with a competitive housing market: Those who have been looking for a place for months in the metropolitan areas of the country know that you’ll have to pay a lot to get the dream apartment. In this respect, apartment scamming looks similar to romance scamming: Both variants recklessly exploit the personal situation of the victims.

Job scamming

Similarly, internet criminals use the distress of jobseekers to their advantage: They entice them with a dream job, top pay, and minimal work hours. Similar to the cheap apartments in top locations, such offers sound too good to be true. Yet many people who are looking for work fall into the trap. Since the few presented advertisements only indicate a telephone number for contact, interested jobseekers have to call directly for further information. The promise usually then comes immediately following a fake phone conversation. Usually, the victim is supposed to transfer money for work materials, uniforms, or shoes in advance.

Once the money is delivered to the scammers, contact is broken off. There is never a contract of employment and the supposedly purchased goods aren’t delivered. Even more caution is necessary if a job offer is posted as a “financial agent” or some other similar name, where only a bank account is necessary: Cases like this are very likely offers for money laundering, which makes participants subject to possible criminal charges. Such accounts are abused, for example, to transfer money acquired through other scams to the actual scammers in other countries.

How can you protect yourself from scamming?

The most effective way to protect yourself against scamming is to exercise a healthy dose of skepticism on the internet: Wherever money is to be transferred in advance, care is required. Never transfer money to strangers who you have never personally met – it doesn’t matter how serious, sympathetic, or otherwise likeable those people may seem. The spam filters of many e-mail services have already started to filter out a majority of suspicious e-mails, but scamming mail can always find its way back into the regular mailbox. It’s best to delete such spam mails or move them to the spam folder. Never answer suspicious e-mails with questionable content, and don’t trust advertisements received unexpectedly from unknown persons.


Don’t trust strangers on the internet, and never transfer money to these people. Always be skeptical, and never respond to clear scamming mails.

On dating sites, real estate portals, and job boards, this also applies: If an advertisement is too good to be true, you should be wary. It’s best to arrange a personal meeting in a public place, a real apartment visit or a job interview on-site. If the internet host won’t comply, you should look elsewhere. Under no circumstances should you follow any money claims made by the unknown.

The same applies to all other marketplaces and online shops – scammers can also be in operation here. You should always choose secure methods of payment on the internet and not pay for anything in advance. For more on the topic, consult our article on popular payment methods. More information about scams, spam, financial agents, and prevention is provided by the FBI here.

What can victims do?

If you’ve already become a victim of scamming, you should back up all of the evidence: Don’t delete the e-mails that you received from the scammers or your replies. The same goes for faxes and letters from the criminals. The messages could still contain important tips that the police can use in their investigation. You should also press charges accordingly. The officials at your local police station will help explain the next steps to you.

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