"Our church email has been hacked. Please disregard any emails from us that you may have received in the past three days . . . . "
This type of email, from individuals, businesses and churches, is becoming more and more common, but scams are not something new. Regularly reports of individuals taking advantage of the elderly, the poor and those in need of home repair, make the news. And who hasn't heard of even the well-to-do being tricked out of huge sums of money in ponzi schemes?
Of course, with the advent of email and the Internet, where too often anything found on the Internet is taken as fact and email scams from around the world can find their way into anyone's email inbox, the opportunity to be scammed has increased exponentially.
Even at the national offices of the Assemblies of God, where high levels of email screening and security are used to prevent spam and scam emails from ever even entering an email inbox, some still make it through - and can be very convincing.
For many people in the national office (and likely millions of others), some of the first scam emails came from unknown supposedly wealthy, but dying, benefactors who were looking to invest their millions into a worthwhile ministry before their money passed on into the hands of cruel relatives or these unknown benefactors were individuals who wanted to get their (or some deceased person's forgotten) millions out of their country and into "trustworthy" hands.
"I'll never forget the day that a missionary working with inner-city youth called my wife, so excited about this person contacting her out of the blue, who wanted to invest a large sum of money in her ministry," recalls Dan Van Veen, "AG News" editor, who has researched scams and spam for years. "I began asking questions right away, and soon learned the contact was an email - one worded almost exactly like three others I had already received over the past weeks. We were able to reach the missionary and warn her of the deception before the scam cost her more than disappointment."
Then there are always the lottery scams, explaining how "You, lucky email recipient, have had your email address randomly selected . . . ." However, instead of winning big cash prizes, those falling for this scam end up the ones shelling out the cash.
Or how about those pesky email warnings stating that the computer's email storage limit has been exceeded and to "click here" to add more space or that some well-known shipping company has been unable to deliver a package and unless a response is received (click this link), they'll begin charging for storing the item?
Many of these aforementioned scams offer links that once clicked, launch a virus or spyware onto a computer, where all kinds of information can be stolen and used, including social security numbers, credit card numbers and even identities.
One of the more frustrating scams, which can impact a person's wallet and reputation, is when hackers hack into an email account, and using the person's email, sends out spam to their email list. "Imagine being a minister," Van Veen says, "and someone hacks into your email system . . . suddenly your email address is sending out messages to your congregation, friends and family members from you - a highly trusted source - with virus-imbedded links or links to pornographic sites!"
"A good way to prevent your email from being hacked is to use a complex password that contains a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols," explains Donavon Hedlun, Information Technologies/PC expert at the Assemblies of God national offices. "It is good practice not to reuse the same password for other online logins, as well."
Van Veen adds that one of the more common and recent scams used by hackers wanting quick money is to hack into an account and send an email informing friends/family, asking for money. "The email typically says something about you being overseas, that you've been robbed and desperately need some money so that you can purchase a plane ticket to return home."
But don't think computer scams are limited to email or online - hackers and spyware can make a person vulnerable in a number of ways.
"Recently, my mother was called at her home," Van Veen says. "The caller identified himself as her grandson, explaining he was overseas and was just robbed and needed money to get a flight back home. The caller knew the right name, knew who the grandson was married to, knew his children's names, his home town - knew a lot about the grandson. My mother grew suspicious, because she knew her grandson couldn't afford to be overseas, so she refused to send him money. It ended up not being her grandson at all. My guess is, the scammer used spyware to gather all this information off her grandson's - or even my mother's - computer to pull off a pretty convincing scam."
Van Veen agrees with Hedlun, who advises that anytime people receive an email from someone they don't know asking them to click on some image or link, the best thing to do is delete that email without clicking on anything but the "delete" button. For those who receive an email or call from a family member or friend asking for money "right away," and especially by 'wire' (such as Western Union), he recommends thoroughly investigating to confirm the identity of the emailer/caller (for example, hang up and call them at a known number).
"No one is 100 percent scam-proof," Van Veen says. "Scammers typically play on things such as greed, lust, need and compassion. They hunt for the 'key' that will turn down your defenses and then exploit you - and possibly every one on your email list. So, being very cautious not only protects you, but protects your friends and family."
Matt Williams, a desktop support specialist at the AG national offices, believes one of the best home PC softwares for PC protection is Microsoft Security Essentials. "It is a free download and takes care of both virus issues and malware," Williams says. "It updates itself automatically and will alert you in real time if something is found." Williams also recommends using the "private browsing" option on Firefox and Internet Explorer 8 when going to online sites (such as banking) as cookies can't be placed and if users haven't upgraded in awhile, to upgrade to a newer version of Windows as it now comes with a customizable, built-in firewall.
Helen Piper, an information technologies Mac computer specialist at the AG national offices, explains that many email programs, such as Yahoo and Gmail, have built-in filters to weed out a significant amount of spam. "However, if you need a spam filter for your home (Mac) computer, I would recommend software such as SpamSieve and Virus Barrier Express for Mac," she says. "The Mac also comes with a built-in firewall that you can turn on to block incoming connections to your computer." Piper adds that anytime an email is received asking for personal information (account numbers, credit card numbers, social security numbers, etc.), it should be deleted as few legitimate companies request personal information be sent to them by email.
"For Christians, good stewardship would seem to include doing our best to keep from being tricked out of money that could otherwise be used for meeting real needs rather than lining a thief's pockets," Van Veen says. "A couple key newsletters people may be interested in to keep up on the latest scams are the Federal Trade Commission's newsletters and Scambusters."