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U.S., local authorities fighting e-mail scams

Fri., July 18, 2008, midnight

Skepticism is best defense, officials say; Web tools help, too

One e-mail comes from a purported hit man who claims he’s been hired to kill you, but for a few thousand dollars he’ll forgo the request.

Another e-mail offers a cashier’s check for twice the value of the antique watch you’re selling online, as long as you send a few hundred of it back to the “buyer.”

And who hasn’t received an e-mail informing that you’ve won the (insert foreign country here) lottery. As soon as you send a fee, the winnings will be forwarded.

These online scams are rampant, authorities say. But more tools are available to help potential victims research and report scams.

The first and best defense, said Spokane police Sgt. Keith Cummings: “If it doesn’t make sense, it’s probably not true, especially if it’s out of the blue. You know, don’t believe everything you read.”

Nationally, Washington logs the eighth-highest number of Internet fraud complaints, while Idaho ranks 38th, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3 – a partnership among the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. IC3’s Web site,, tracks Internet scams and collects complaints.

“Before this came into existence, we’d just tell people that if there’s no dollar loss, delete the e-mail,” said Don Robinson, supervisor for the FBI’s Coeur d’Alene bureau.

IC3 logs the complaints by type, amounts of money lost and other factors. Annual statistics, listed by state, can be found on the Web site.

“There are analysts and agents that research all of this to see if they can link up an IP (Internet protocol) address,” Robinson said. “But the sad reality of these is that an excess of 90 percent originate overseas. But we do share the information. We give that information to the correlating country.”

Area authorities receive regular reports from IC3 about local complaints logged on its Web site.

Another Web site can help identify IP addresses by using the e-mail’s header. Detectives sometimes use an IP address search to determine how seriously to take a threat, Cummings said. If a detective can see that a death threat was generated locally, for instance, it would be cause for greater concern.

Frank Harrill, a special agent with the FBI’s Spokane bureau, said the agency receives complaints weekly about death threat e-mails.

The perpetrators send out such messages in bulk and rely on a fraction of people responding, he said.

Recently, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department investigated a death threat e-mail sent to an elderly Post Falls man. The sender claimed to have been hired for $65,000 to assassinate the man, but for $8,000 the sender would forget about it.

Detectives asked the man if he knew anyone who wanted to kill him, according to a police report. The man said he did not. Authorities determined the e-mail was a scam.

The most common scam in Washington and Idaho are auction scams in which people agree to pay more than an item is worth via cashier’s or personal check in exchange for sending a few bucks back.

“It’s a tired old quote, but it’s true,” Robinson said. “If it sounds to be good to be true, it probably is.”

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