Originally posted in The National Law Journal on September 20, 2012
How can you identify spam? Easily enough: It stinks. Spam is unwanted email or online messages sent from people we don’t know with the purpose of selling to us, or worse. Lawyers need to be especially careful of three types of dangerous spam: phishing spam; “Spanish Prisoner” spam; and time-wasting spam.
Here is how to identify each one.
Phishing Spam. This is the most dangerous for lawyers, because it can expose bank information or all of your contacts and their email addresses to strangers. It all starts out with an innocent-looking email like this (actual text received in a phishing email; errors in the original):
Subject: Action required!!!
Very important : we emailed you a little while ago to as for your help resulving an issue with your PayPal account. Your account is still temporarily limited because we haven’t hear from you.
please login here and confirm your information : (What looks like a PayPal Link).
If you make the mistake of following the directions, you will get an error message — and your account information will be recorded by the perpetrator of the phishing scheme.
How can you protect yourself? First, always go to the actual website to log in — in this case, to Paypal.com — rather than clicking on a link embedded in an email.
Second, notice that this email is addressed to “Member.” PayPal’s terms of service specifically state that all email communication will come directed to your attention, naming you in the subject line.
A third dead giveaway is the poor grammar and punctuation. Turns out that criminals don’t have the best writing skills — or, more likely, they are sending you the spam from a foreign country.
There is a similarly dangerous phishing scam on Twitter, but this one is more insidious. Here is an example of what it looks like (again, errors in the original):
John: hey someone is writing shocking things that are about you (Link to supposed shocking things).
Don’t click on the link! It will show you a screen prompting you to login to Twitter or Facebook and — Boom! — you have given away your account log-in information. Once again, notice that the writer is using unusual phrases that likely were written by someone who doesn’t speak English as his native language.
Spanish Prisoner spam. Versions of this scam have been making the rounds since before there was email. It dates to 1588, in fact, according to some sources. Traditionally, perpetrator of the fraud claims to be in contact with an imprisoned prince or princess — or finance minister — who has millions tied up and needs just a small amount of help financially to release the funds, for which assistance the victim will be rewarded handsomely. In modern day version, the person in distress might be a friend who has been robbed while abroad. And then there’s this, an email I received just yesterday:
We need a lititgation lawyer who can handle a collection case. Please let me know if you can be of assistance to me or If not a referral could be helpful.
If you agree to take on the case, you may even have the client sign a retainer agreement and, before you know it, it a cashier’s check will arrive at your office for a large amount of money — $250,000 or maybe more. The perpetrator will ask you to send him a small percentage of this amount and, once you wire the money, you will soon receive a call from your bank informing you that the $250,000 check was a fake.
There are a myriad of variations on this scam, but the red flags are roughly the same as for phishing. They always lead with something vague, like “Dear Counsel,” because the message goes out to large number of lawyers, and they often will say something like, “we need help from someone in your geography” without actually naming your town.
Time Wasting Spam. Do you ever get emails or newsletters on a monthly basis that you never signed up for? This is time-wasting spam. Take the time to scroll down to the bottom of the email and click “unsubsribe” and you will never have to waste your time hitting delete on the newsletter again. Our lives are full of plenty of noise already, and this is type of spam is both infuriating and costs us our most valuable commodity: time.
Now that you know about the three most dangerous types of spam, you will see it all over the place. Feel free to pass this info along, because the more we know the better chance we have of keeping ourselves and families safe from the spammers. Are there other types of spam I am missing? Feel free to share the most entertaining spam you have received in the comments section below.