Email Scams

Email scams

Virus infected attachments and links to spoofed banking websites aren't the only malicious emails - there's plenty of other scams to watch for in addition to phishing emails.

The fact that email makes it so easy to hide the true sender has made it an incredibly popular tool for fraudsters, with a countless number of different scams in circulation.

Spotting email scams

Just think how many emails each day you respond to without question:

  • The normal emails from your friends?
  • Requests from your manager?
  • Special offer emails from companies that you already deal with?

We regularly act on email without questioning it.

Now think what would happen if a scammer sent you an email that - by sheer luck - looked like something you might be expecting. All it takes is for one email to look 'normal' and bypass your defences, and you'll have just lost a lot of money. This is why (sadly) you need to be constantly alert to the possibility of any email being a scam.

If you notice any of the following in an email then you should look at it more closely:

1) Unusual payment requests

Being asked to pay upfront, to change bank details, or to pay via a money transfer service, can all be big warning signs.

2) Too good to be true?

If it's too good to be true, it almost certainly is (sorry, you've not won that lottery!)

3) "Don't tell anyone"

The fewer people who know, the less chance there is of someone raising the alarm.

4) Time pressure

Scammers know the quicker you act the less time you have to realise you're being scammed.

5) Playing on your emotions

Scams regularly manipulate our emotions, especially curiosity, empathy, hope, and fear.

6) Authority

Fraudsters will feign authority by impersonating banks, well known companies, lawyers, charities, or even the police.

Our page on how to spot a phishing email also contains lots of tips on tell-tale tale signs to watch for. The tips on that page are valid for all types of email scam, regardless of the scam's objective or who the email is sent to.

Some common scams

Humans instinctively have several traits that make us all susceptible to being scammed. We naturally want to help others, we're curious, we want to be liked, and we're often lazy. We're also programmed to want to trust each other.

Fraudsters know this - and use it against us.

Below are some of the more commonly seen email-based scams, in addition to phishing emails. Being aware of the scams below, and knowing the common warning signs above, should help to protect you against the majority of scams.

Money transfer fraud

Money transfer scam

Of all the reasons that criminals try to scam us, "earning" money is the number one reason. And there's no quicker way to do this than to fool us into transferring tens-of-thousands straight into their account.

There's several ways fraudsters try to con us into doing this, whether by targetting businesses (such as with 'CEO Fraud' or 'Mandate Fraud'), or individuals (such as home buyers who are ready to send a deposit to their solicitor).

We've got a whole page dedicated to money transfer scams - take a look and learn what to watch out for.

Dating fraud

Dating website scam

This cruel scam exploits people's emotions by befriending those looking for love, before defrauding them of large sums of money.

This could be by exploiting the victim's trust to send money for a fake emergency, or sometimes by blackmailing them over an intimate photo or video they sent.

How to respond?

Whilst most dating scams begin on dating websites, we've included it within this section on email scams as they often quickly move from these sites and onto email. If you're concerned that someone you're talking to is not who they say they are, or if you're concerned about a friend, then head over to our page on dealing with dating fraud.

Fake charity appeal

Charity shop window

When a major disaster hits, wherever in the world it is, our natural human instinct is to want to help those less fortunate than us.

Fraudsters know this, and exploit it to make money with fake crowdfunding appeals or phishing campaigns.

How to respond?

Only donate to an organisation you know you can trust. Always type the web address of the charity into the browser yourself, and never click on a link within an email (even in emails claiming to be from charities you know; these can easily be spoofed).

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) are a great & trustworthy place to donate to for major international disasters; this is a UK body who coordinate several major charities in the time of crisis.

See our page for advice on safely donating to charities online.

Special offers


Back in the early days of the internet this was the main type of scam, accounting for a huge proportion of all spam.

It covers any email offering questionable goods or services such as drugs (often Viagra), fake degrees, cheap jewellery, or foreign work visas.

Sending email is cheap and all it takes is a tiny fraction of recipients to respond for it to be a worthwhile business for the scammers. This is why this type of spam is still around today.

How to respond?

Most of this spam will probably be blocked by your junk filter - any that does get through should just simply be deleted.

Never respond to these. Not only will your email address be sold to other spammers, but the actual product will often not be what you expect. You may not even receive anything for your money, or be charged a lot more money than you authorised.

Of all the products offered, drugs especially should never be bought this way. The scammers are only in it to make money - they could send you anything, even things that are dangerous to your health.

Advance fee

Many different versions of Advance Fee fraud exist, but the basic premise of them all is quite simple - an email claims that you're due a lot of money, but to release it you must first transfer money yourself.

An example of advance fee fraud

An example of advance fee fraud

It could be a Nigerian prince who needs help avoiding tax, a lottery prize, or an inheritance from a relative. There really is no limit to the scammers imagination!

Most of these don't start by asking for money. They lure you in slowly, promising riches in exchange for your help. After a few emails they start to ask for money, often tiny amounts at first before ramping up the pressure, the excuses, and the amount being asked for. Before the victims know it they're sending large sums of money.

How to respond?

The good news is that these scams are often very easy to spot and delete. But just occasionally the scenario can sound plausible, such as heir hunters who've found a distant relative.

If there's any email you're not sure of:

  • Thoroughly research any person or company in the email. Type their name in a web search along with the word "scam" or "fraud", and if possible check too with any relevant trade organisation.
  • If they ask for money upfront then walk away - no legitimate business would ask for an advance fee before paying you.

Some people in the past have turned the tables on the scammers to expose their tricks - take a look at some links from Google here.

Plea for help

This type of scam, whilst it can be a standalone scam, is often the closing stage of another scam, such as Dating Fraud or Advance Fee scams, and plays out once the fraudster has established a relationship with the victim.

The scenario here is that the sender of the email is in some sort of trouble and needs your help. This could be a medical emergency that needs paying for, some form of family emergency, or a claim they've been mugged in a foreign country and need money to get home.

The emails (there may be a sequence of emails building the story up) can be very emotional and lead to feelings of guilt if you ignore them. But ignore them you must.

How to respond?

This one is simple, just ignore it!

No matter how much it tugs on your emotions & guilt it's simply a lie, your money would be going to a criminal. Even if the fraudster is someone you think you have a relationship with - for example you met on a dating website - you should still be suspicious and stop all communication. Ask a friend for a second opinion if you're not sure.

Penny stocks

This scam - popular in the early 2000's - seems to be making a bit of a come back recently. It's the classic "pump & dump" stock scam but uses email spam to lure its victims instead of cold phone calls.

A typical penny stock type email

A typical penny stock type email

The scam begins even before the first email is sent, with the fraudsters buying huge volumes of cheap shares in an innocent company. They then run an email spam campaign claiming to have a hot tip or insider knowledge - and that the company's stock is about to skyrocket.

It only takes a few people to respond by buying shares for the price to start climbing, allowing the scammers to sell out with a tidy profit.

Unfortunately for everyone else though, since the fraudsters sell a huge volume of shares in one go, the price crashes (often to below the original price) leading to most people losing their investments.

How to respond?

This is another one you can easily spot and ignore. Whilst if you were lucky with the timing you could make some money, you're almost certain to lose out and waste all your money. Simply move this email to your trash folder.

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