Fifteen Ways to Spot An Internet Bandit


Daniel J. Barrett
December 29, 1996

From Bandits on the Information Superhighway
Copyright 1996, O’Reilly &V Associates, Inc.

  • Hidden name or address. Don’t conduct business with users unless they reveal their name, address, and phone number. Beware of users who try to buy or sell things using an anonymous email address *like anon12345@anon.penet.fi) or a post office box.
  • Uncheckable references. “As seen on Donahue!” “The subject of hundreds of newspaper articles!” These credentials sound impressive, but notice that you aren’t given enough information (dates, newspaper names) to look them up.
  • Too much talk about money, not enough about the deal. Scammers try to blind you with dreams of becoming rich, so you won’t notice the fine print. Watch out for bogus “profit charts” promising easy wealth.
  • “This is not a scam.” Scammers say this all the time. They might even cite specific laws that “prove” their legality. Don’t fall for this trick. A legitimate business doesn’t spend time “convincing” you of its honesty.
  • Requests for your credit card number. Don’t send your credit card number to anybody by email. If your mail software supports encryption, this can help protect the number, but it may not be foolproof. Some encryption techniques are better than others.
  • Pyramid shape. Are you asked to send money to (say) five people, who each send money to five more people, who each send money to five more people, and so on? Then you are very likely looking at an illegal pyramid scheme.
  • Spamming. People who post huge numbers of identical articles online are forcing you to pay the bill.
  • Too much knowledge about you. Take notice if a newfound “Net friend” suddenly knows details about you that you have not revealed.
  • LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS and punctuation!!! Be skeptical of ads that shout at you, like “MIRACLE CURE!!!” or “Learn how to make BIG $$$$$ MONEY in NO TIME AT ALL!!!!!
  • Pay before you play. The details of the offer are kept hidden until after you pay a fee. But what happens if the details turn out to be junk? You lose. Remember that “money-back-guarantees” from strangers may be worthless.
  • Hidden costs. Watch out for ads that shout “it won’t cost you a penny to get started” and then quietly charge you an “entrance fee.”
  • “Secret” method available “only to a limited number of people.” A typical scam ad reaches thousands or millions of users. That’s a strange way to reveal a secret! Scammers accept a “limited number” of responses so they can close their business quickly and run away with people’s money.
  • Requests for your password. Never reveal your password to anybody. Your system administrator never needs to ask you for it. If somebody asks you to change your password to a known word for”system testing,” be immediately suspicious; this is a well-known cracker trick.
  • Unsolicited email. If you get email from a stranger out of the blue, offering to give or sell you something, treat it with suspicion.
  • Inappropriate questions. If a “Net friend” you hardly know starts asking very personal questions or tries to borrow money from you, be on your guard.