May 11, 2007 at 9:00 AM ET
"I have being paid $50,000.00 in advance to terminate you"
Steve Thomas opened his e-mail recently and read a message which included that ominous sentence, followed by this one: “I have followed you closely for one week and three days.”
But Thomas, a 48-year-old Little Rock, Ark., resident, isn't in any danger -- unless you think an assault of improper English or an overflowing junk mail folder constitute danger.
"I never did take it seriously, but I thought about my mother,” he said. “She's just gotten into doing e-mail and if she had gotten that it probably would have bothered her more. And of course in the back of your mind, there's always that little piece that says, 'What if it isn't a hoax?' "
Thomas was targeted by what is sometimes called a "hit man scam" or "killer spam." It's just an unwanted e-mail, like so many others, designed to trick consumers into giving cash to a criminal half-way around the world. Only in this case, recipients are told their life depends on their ability to transfer $50,000 to an overseas bank in the next few days.
The poor English -- not to mention the outrageous claims – should tip off most recipients that the mail isn't real. But this scam certainly sounds a bit more serious than offers for penile enlargement creams or a chance to split $5 million hidden by a former Nigerian prince.
E-mail extortion scams have been around since the dawn of e-mail. But the hit-man scam seems to have gained traction in recent months, perhaps as e-mail criminals see a need to raise the stakes to get attention.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center issued a warning about extortion e-mails earlier this year. And Jim DePriest, an assistant attorney general in Arkansas, said his office has received multiple hit-man complaints recently and the FBI has received about 100 complaints nationwide, he said. Not every victim was as tech savvy as Thomas.
"We've received a half dozen or more from consumers who were quite alarmed," DePriest said. There were enough complaints to prompt his office to send out a consumer alert about the e-mails last week.
"One scam takes spam to a new, frightening level," the notice says.
The scam also takes the crime to a new level, DePriest said. Criminals who send out threats of bodily harm would be likely be liable for prosecution on assault or terroristic threat charges, in addition to charges normally associated with spam and fraud.
Consumers who receive such e-mails should pay them no mind, said Greg Donewar, manager of the Internet Crime Complaint Center. He directed confused Net users to visit LooksTooGoodToBeTrue.com, the agency's Web site devoted to consumer education, for more information.
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