Finding a Pot of Gold at the End of an Internet Rainbow: Further
Examination of Fraudulent Email Solicitation
& Ronald Burns
Christian University, USA
amount of Internet spam has grown exponentially over the last decade.
While much of this unsolicited email is harmless advertising, a
growing proportion of it is insidious in nature and fraudulent in
intent. The current research assesses the nature of this type of
criminal approach. Two email accounts captured a total of 476
unsolicited emails identified as suspect in intent over a three month
period. The researchers analyzed the nature of the solicitation, the
nature of the solicitor, and the information asked of the target.
Initial findings suggest relationship-building social engineering
methods are preferred over direct inquiry of sensitive information. A
descriptive analysis is provided and policy implications are
Internet Spam; Unsolicited emails; Harmless advertising
New technologies such as the Internet have radically changed the means
by which society communicates, conducts business, and engages in
recreation. The speed and convenience of the Internet has attracted a
critical mass of global users. For the same reasons, Internet
transgressors adopted the medium as a new avenue for crime. Many
scholars consider the Internet as a medium for crime which consists of
the same legal elements and motivations as conventional or street
crimes (Brenner, 2001; Grabosky, 2001; Yar, 2005). However, the
proliferation of cybercrime indicates that the Internet medium has
outstripped traditional forms of social control. First, formal social
control institutions rooted in static organizational design and legal
tradition lack the appropriate flexibility and resources to deter
online fraudulent activities (Wall, 1999, 2000; Walker, Wall, &
Akdeniz, 2000; Burns, Whitworth, & Thompson, 2004). Second, the
relative anonymity of computer crime and the ability to commit crime
from a safe distance are but a few of the attractive features of
computer crime that have contributed to its proliferation (Wall, 2001;
Grabosky, 2004). Third, users often resist forms of social control
imposed on the Internet as an affront to its ethos of unrestricted
openness and unfettered exchange of ideas and information (Hafner &
Markoff, 1995; Levy, 2001; Lasica, 2005; Lessig, 2005). Nonetheless,
the “dark side” of the Internet, representing undesirable activities
ranging from the invasion of privacy to the unsolicited distribution
of obscene pornographic materials, exists as a reflection of society (Kleinrock,
The current research focuses on the changing modus operandi through
which crime is committed. Particularly, we elaborate on the
relatively scant research that focuses on two of the oldest forms of
crime, fraud and deception, as they currently exist in the
information age (Lyon, 1988; Alberts, Papp, & Kemp III, 1997;
Castells, 2000). The social sciences has largely discounted online
fraudulent activity is being a nuisance of the digital technology.
However, it represents a very harmful activity that has been
facilitated purely by the Internet and has presented new risks that
threaten the communications and commercial infrastructures (Wall,
The present study used data gathered from a sample of online fraud
attempts from two computers in the form of unsolicited mass emails,
commonly known as “spam,”
over a two-month period. These results are generally considered with
regard to earlier research that also addressed the nature of advance
fee email solicitations (Dyrud, 2005; Holt and Graves, 2007). Thomas
Holt and Danielle Graves (2007) earlier conducted a study similar to
the present work by examining 412 fraudulent email messages and
analyzing the mechanisms used by email scammers. Particularly, the
researchers analyzed the structure and content, and the linguistic
compositions within the email solicitations. Among the findings, Holt
and Graves noted that roughly half of the email messages requested
that recipients forward personal information to the sender. Their
research closely resembles the present study, and finding from their
work are discussed throughout the Discussion section of the present
work. The studies differ in that the present work provides a deeper
analysis and deconstruction of the email content and foregoes
examination of the language patterns found in Holt and Graves’ study.
The present study contributes to the literature primarily through
providing advanced analyses of the content within the email
solicitations, and offering a basis of comparison for the findings
from the Holt and Graves study. The authors seek to give insight into
the structural and economic motivations for the perpetuation and
nature of spam and online fraud. The focus of the research is the
issue of gaining trust in order to deceive potential victims. Dyrud’s
(2005: 9-10) similar method of linguistic analysis of Nigerian 419
letters concludes that “scammers are accomplished persuaders who
garner substantial, albeit unethical, rewards for their efforts.”
present research also provides direction for law enforcement agencies
to prevent and confront computer fraud. Law enforcement and general
crime prevention efforts may be misguided without accurate assessment
of the problem(s) surrounding computer fraud, and the limited
scholarly research in the area provides little assistance. The
findings from the present study-, and results from related works
provide direction for preventing and responding to computer fraud, as
social control agents can more accurately guide their efforts.
Further, the results offer assistance to potential victims.
Individuals who are more aware of the nature of fraudulent computer
schemes are better positioned to avoid becoming actual victims. The
ability to identify, avoid, and/or report computer scams facilitates
the overall prevention of fraudulent behavior, and saves potential
victims much time, aggravation, and financial resources.
following review of the literature addresses several topics pertaining
to online fraud. Particularly, the discussion entails an overview of
this growing problem, including
of the various types of fraud and a discussion of both legislative and
law enforcement efforts to confront the activity.
Review of Literature
Growing Problem of Online Fraud
Fraud, loosely defined as intentional misrepresentation for the
purpose of gain, has existed in various forms for centuries. David
Friedrichs (2004) argues that fraud, recognized as “contrepreneurial
crime” under the umbrella term “white-collar crime,” has existed since
the origin of recorded history. Legislation pertaining to fraud dates
back to the fourth century B.C. in ancient Greece (Drapkin, 1989).
Despite the fundamental nature of the crime remaining constant
(larceny by trick, false pretencer
deception), fraud has evolved with legal and marketplace changes. As
Chambliss and Courtless1992)
point out, “fraud presents a difficult set of legal and social
problems,” yet “few statutory definitions spell out [all the elements
of the crime]” despite its
“for a greater economic burden on the average citizen than all other
crimes combined” (p.241). The complexities of fraudulent behavior are
rooted in the varieties of forms it can take and its continuing
evolution as a type of criminal commerce, ranging from political fraud
(e.g., intentionally excluding groups of individuals from voting or
purchasing votes with government funds, e.g., Campbell, 2005) to
electronic fraud, as discussed in the present research.
nature of fraud became even more complex with the introduction of
Internet communications and electronic commerce. Junk mail was
recognized by researchers long before the Internet was made publicly
available. Early in the development of Internet in 1975, an Advanced
Research Projects Agency (ARPA) network engineer warned, “In the ARPA
Network Host/IMP interface protocol there is no mechanism for the Host
to selectively refuse messages…Such a Host could be sent many messages
by a malfunctioning Host,” leading to “a denial of service to the
normal users of this Host” (Postel, 1975:1; Hinde, 2003). Decades
later, volumes of unsolicited email flood users’ inboxes by
sophisticated spammers who have learned to automatically harvest
millions of email addresses (Prince, et al., 2005), generate fake
websites (“spoofing”) to mislead users (“phishing”) (Dhamija, Tygar, &
Hearst, 2006;), virally infect computers to steal information (Geer,
2005; Holz, Engelberth, & Freiling, 2009), circumvent spam-blocking
technologies (Wagner, 2003) and other advanced forms of fraud.
Much evidence suggests technology-based fraud is increasing in
frequency despite law enforcement efforts. According to a February
2009 Spam report by security software firm Symantec, the presence of
spam, ranging in nature from advertising to outright fraud, has spiked
since 2008. Results from the National White Collar Crime Center’s 2005
National Public Survey on White Collar Crime noted a “sharp rise” in
the number of technology-based white collar crimes, and suggested that
technology-based crimes were becoming increasingly prevalent (National
White Collar Crime Center, 2006). The Internet Crime Complaint Center
and the Federal Trade Commission both identified a notable rise in the
deceptive practices committed via the Internet (National White Collar
Crime Center, 2004 & 2005; Federal Trade Commission, 2005). The use of
illegitimate emails to commit fraud has seen a “marked increase in
recent years at a growth rate greater than that seen by more
traditional forms of fraud” (National White Collar Crime Center,
2006). The increase in fraudulent emails is also supported by a 2008
Microsoft security report which found over 97% of all emails are
unwanted and target the small percentage of users who fall prey to
seemingly innocuous links and email attachments (Microsoft Security
Intelligence Report, 2008).
The current economic downturn has fueled an increase in more
aggressive fraudulent online activities, resulting in more frequent
and malicious forms of this type of crime. According to one cyber
security project manager, “The economy will likely remain a strong
theme in upcoming months as cyber criminals tap into fear-mongering
tactics to take advantage of the global economic downturn” (Threatscape
Report, 2009). A 2008 McAfee report indicated that the global economic
financial crisis has significantly exacerbated cybercrime as offenders
are more likely to be motivated by financial gain (McAfee Virtual
Crime Report, 2008). A Sophos report noted that offenders’ strategies
have evolved to more creative methods in deceiving users, for instance
by targeting social networking venues such as Facebook and Twitter by
masquerading as friends of victims (Goodchild, 2009; Internet Crime
Complaint Center, 2009). The increase in creativity
indicative of the dynamic nature of online fraud.
in the proliferation and sophistication of spammers have resulted in
significant increases in harm. For example, scammers have masqueraded
as FBI agents investigating fraud (FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center
Intelligence Note, 2008). Other concerns include unwary Internet users
responding to emails or misdirected links with personal information.
These phishing scams acquire direct information, such as
usernames and passwords, often through misrepresentation. While the
present study focuses on advance-fee fraud, increased harm from the
proliferation of spam must be considered. Statistics from the National
Consumer’s League’s (NCL) National Fraud Information Center suggested
that the total loss from Internet fraud in 2005 was over $13.8
million, a figure much higher than the $5.78 million lost in 2004. The
average loss to Internet fraud victims was also much higher in 2005
than in 2004 (National Consumer’s League, 2005, 2006).
Victims sometimes unknowingly install malicious software, or
malware, on their personal computers. A 2008 McAfee report shows
a dramatic increase in malware (McAfee Virtual Crime Report, 2008).
Users may inadvertently install malware by opening email attachments
or clicking on embedded links. This software can turn a computer into
a “zombie,” under the control of a third party operator. Cyber
culprits can useetworks
of these infected computers, or botnets, for malicious
activities ranging from attacking bank servers containing private
information to automatically sending thousands of simultaneous emails
for the purpose of defrauding users (Bacher, Holz, Kotter, & Wicherski,
2005; Provos & Holz, 2008; Liu, Xiao, Ghaboosi, Deng & Zhang, 2009).
One infected computer can potentially generate 25,000 spam messages
per hour or 600,000 per day (Keizer, 2009).
Scammers also appeal to sympathy. Two notable reasons for solicitation
are illness and social/political victimization. Phishing scams often
spike immediately after traumatic events, such as natural disasters.
For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, several charitable
websites with legitimate sounding addresses (and some representing
themselves as the Red Cross) were shut down by authorities (Ragucci &
Robila, 2006). Internet fraud, similar to all types of fraud, tends to
prey on the sympathy of victims. Holt and Graves (2007) found that
roughly 5.1 percent of solicitations were from individuals who claimed
to have a terminal illness.
The present research suggests social engineering, or manipulation of
people, is the most important part of online fraud. Two types of
victimization are: (1) indirect victimization, or pharming,
where links within emails redirect users to authentic-looking websites
to capture information
for the purpose of selling the information to third parties or for use
in identity theft and (2) direct victimization, in which a scammer,
using a variety of guises and methods, manipulates victims into
sending funds directly.
fraud victimization can have an emotional impact and lingering effects
on victims. For instance, victims of phishing scams can suffer from
ailments ranging from embarrassment to depression, with some
psychologists drawing similarities to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
2009). According to the
Federal Trade Commission, 31% of identity theft victims who had new
credit cards taken out in their name required over 40 hours to rectify
credit issues and faced consequences such as harassment by creditors
(48%), loan rejections (25%), and criminal investigations (12%)
(Federal Trade Commission, 2006). The median loss per victim filed at
the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) were highest among check
fraud ($3,000), confidence fraud ($2,000) and Nigerian advance fee
fraud ($1,650), totaling $264.6 million in 2008 (IC3 Annual Report,
2008). In one extreme case, a British man committed suicide when
victimized by an Internet money-laundering scam (Suicide of Internet
Among the more common forms of Internet fraud are credit card fraud,
identity theft fraud, Web and email spoofing (e.g., creating a Website
that appears authentic when in fact it is not, and sending email
directing potential victims to the site; this type of fraud
as phishing), IM spimming (similar to spoofing, although
it involves the use of instant messaging), high-tech disaster fraud,
and online hoaxes (Harley & Lee, 2007; McQuade, 2006).
While each form of fraud is worthy of consideration, the present work
primarily focuses on Web and email spoofing, and online hoaxeshich
involve a variety of deceptive practices. To be sure, the categories
that constitute cybercrime and Internet fraud sometimes overlap and
the entire area of study is under constant development.
Phishing is an increasingly popular form of Internet fraud (e.g.,
Goth, 2005) with an increasing number of victims (McMillan, 2007).
Sometimes called brand spoofing, phishing involves the use of emails
that appear to originate from businesses with which targeted victims
have been, or arsociated.
Some of the more common businesses and industries included in phishing
include banks, online businesses (e.g., eBay and PayPal), and online
service providers (e.g., Yahoo and AOL). Unsuspecting victims receive
emails that appear to be from these entities, often suggesting
suspicious activity regarding the account and requesting personal
information (e.g., personal identification numbers, credit card
numbers, and social security numbers). The sender (i.e., the offender)
ultimately seeks to use the victim’s personal information for
individual gain (see Larcom and Elbirt, 2006or
a thorough discussion of phishing, including prevention and
retaliation efforts). The emails convince up to 20 percent of
recipients to respond to them, sometimes leading to financial losses,
identity theft, and other forms of fraud (Kay, 2004). “Brand”
association is an effective technique that allows scammers to directly
steal information or be able to use social engineering to persuade
users to disclose financial information (James, 2005; Harley & Lee,
2009). Fraudsters also set up bogus websites portrayed as legitimate
sites from which unwary customers purchase goodshey
Online hoaxes may consist of emails containing lottery scams and “get
rich quick” schemes of various sorts. Lottery scams often involve
unsuspecting victims receiving an email stating that they have won a
sum of money and/or prizes. The gist of this scam involves the
recipient/”winner” being required to call someone (i.e., an individual
involved with the scam) who then instructs the “winner” to send fees
in order to process the winnings. More skillful con artists rarely
solicit direct victim information but instead rely on social
engineering to create a web of deceit using fictitious legal and
administrative costs associated with foreign lotteries to obtain
personal information and payments (Barrett, 2004). “Get rich quick”
schemes often appeal to targeted victims’ motivation to make a large
sum of money with little effort. Such schemes may involve an email
detailing a tragic incident and the need for the email recipient
(i.e., the potential victim) to forward personal information and/or
money. Once the confidence of the victim is earned by building a
rapport using false pretenses of a non-existent good, service, or
payment, the offenders are able to make a substantial profit. The
authors of fraudulent emails often operate out of countries that do
very little to prevent and enforce Internet fraud (McQuade, 2006).
Earnings from Internet fraud can contribute significantly to depressed
economies. Nigeria, in particular, has drawn international attention
by its proliferation of advance fee schemes (e.g., Smith, Holmes, &
Kaufmann, 1999; Edelson, 2003; James, 2005; Holt & Graves, 2007;
Harley & Lee, 2007, 2009). Online advance fee fraud has been
synonymously known as “Nigerian 419” scams, named after Nigerian
Criminal Code chapter 38 §419 dealing with fraud. This is not to say
that advance fee fraud originates from Nigeria, but that the region
has become associated with this type of fraud and corruption over the
course of several decades (Smith, 2007; Glickman, 2005). Former U.S.
Secretary of State Colin Powell even referred to Nigeria as “a nation
of scammers” (Glickman, 2005).
According to Microsoft, Nigerian 419 scams are a very common type of
advance fee fraud where scammers generally claim to be from Nigeria
and execute a variety of deceptive schemes that require victims to
These scams are frequently executed from access points in the form of
local cyber cafés, which have been the target of more recent
raids from Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission
(EFCC) (Lilly, 2009). However, Internet scammers often remain largely
undeterred by law enforcement activities (Goodman & Brenner, 2002).
The situation in Nigeria clearly exemplifies the criminogenic
conditions created by lax laws and enforcement regarding the Internet.
One may best explain Internet fraud
examining environmental conditions that contribute to its
proliferation. Researchers have identified several factors as
contributing to fraud in Nigeria: (1) ease of access, (2) anonymity,
(3) availability of email extraction software, (4) ignorance of the
gravity of online crimes, (5) economic conditions, and (6) inadequate
law enforcement (Adomi & Igun, 2008). For example, cyber cafés have
been identified as facilitating fraudulent activities in Nigeria more
than any other Internet access points (Longe & Chiemeke, 2008). Local
social conditions further exacerbate environments that are conducive
to crime due to the limited legal response to computer crime.
members tacitly accept Nigerian 419 scams. Scammers are perceived as
legitimate businesspersons and are allowed to operate in localized
regions (see, e.g., Adeniran, 2008, for discussion of the impact of
the Internet on the creation and perpetuation of a criminal subculture
in Nigeria). Robert Merton’s (1938) strain theory, as well as
the subsequent variations of Merton’s work (e.g., Agnew, 1992; Cloward
& Ohlin, 1960; Messner & Rosenfeld; 1994) can explain these
criminogenic regions as the result legitimate means of goal attainment
being blocked or unavailable. According to one representative from
the EFCC, “419 scams are
still the main problem but we are also witnessing other problems such
as credit card fraud and lottery scams as well as the hacking and
cloning of websites” (McCue, 2005).
Offenders are undeterredrom
misconduct without community stigma (Lemert, 1974; Braithwaite, 1989).
Moreover, victims are often blamedor
being greedy. For instance, Nigerian high commissioner Sunday Olu Agbi
stated that “people who send their money are as guilty as those who
are asking them to send the money” (Cheng, 2008).
The Internet has reduced the costs of committing fraud while
exponentially expanding the base of potential victims. Among other
effects, this has resulted in advance fee emails being sent to an
“extremely conservative” estimate of over 10 million recipients
worldwide daily (King & Thomas, 2008). The large numbers of emails are
necessary to capture the relatively small number of respondents.
According to a University of California study, only one in 12.5
million fraudulent email attempts receive a response (Kanich et al.,
2008). During the study period of 26 days, only 28 sales resulted from
over 350 million emails sent, a response rate of only 0.00001%.
However, that small percentage can translate into a significant amount
of earnings. Despite the extremely small percentage of respondents,
one can estimateat
the spam in an entire botnet would generate roughly $3.5 million in
revenue each year.
Legislating and Policing Internet Fraud
The Internet poses new challenges for victims, law enforcement, and
lawmakers. The technical and distributed nature of cybercrime often
confuses victims in need of help and lawmakers trying to draft laws
that will hold up across multiple jurisdictions. Law enforcement must
also deal with the difficulties associated with jurisdiction (Brenner
& Koops, 2004; Burns, Whitworth & Thompson, 2004), digital evidence
(Scarborough, Rogers, Frakes & Martin, 2006), and issues related with
the culture and structure of law enforcement (Nhan & Huey, 2008).
Numerous laws exist to confront computer crime, and, more
specifically, Internet fraud. Legislation in this area is continuously
emerging and evolving as technological advances create the need for
additional legislation and the revision of existing laws.
Clearly delineating the legislation surrounding cybercrime or Internet
fraud is beyond the scope of this work. However, the nature of the
present work, which involves examination of a new form of an existing
crime (fraud), warrants a brief overview of legislation in this area.
often do not distinguish Internet fraud from traditional fraud.
Brenner (2006) highlights the legislation surrounding identity theft,
including Section 1028 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code which prohibits
behaviors considered fraud in conjunction with identification
documents and contains penalties of five to fifteen years
as well as fines and forfeiture. For instance, under federal law it is
illegal to knowingly and without permission produce an authentication
feature, an identification document, or a false identification
document. Further, transferring these types of documents knowing that
they were stolen or producedithout
authority is illegal.
Offenders will sometimes unlawfully use the trademark of an
established, reputable agency in attempts to persuade unwitting
victims to submit funds or personal information. Email spoofing, a
form of phishing, is often committed
in violation of the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C.
§§ 1051-1141n (2000)) and the Trademark Counterfeiting Act (18
U.S.C. §2320(a) (2000))hich
address violations of trademark infringement. The Lanham Act addresses
civil damages for trademark infringement; the Trademark Counterfeiting
Act facilitates criminal penalties. To successfully impose criminal
must demonstrate that the defendant intentionally and knowingly used
the counterfeit trademark to traffic, or attempt to traffic
goods and services. These and related actions, as detailed by Brenner
and other legal scholars who elaborate on the nature of identity theft
legislation, have become more feasible due to extensive technological
The Internet has not fundamentally changed the legal orientation and
motivations for fraud. Phishing, for instance, is simply fraud
committed using electronic means. Brenner (2001: 1) categorized
cybercrime into four core legal components:
Actus reus (the perpetrator communicates false information)
Mens rea (communicating false statements for the purpose of
defrauding the victim),
Attendant circumstances (perpetrator’s statements are false) and
(the victim was defrauded out of property or something of value).
Under this legal analysis, existing laws are adequate to indict
Internet fraudsters. Prosecutors can use traditional mail- and wireraud
statutes, although not cybercrime-specific, to convict fraud committed
via the Internet (Brenner, 2006).
international laws exist to confront jurisdictional issues of Internet
fraud. The inter-jurisdictional nature of mostomputer
crime provides particular challenges not found in many traditional
forms of criminal behavior. States and countries vary in their
responses to computer crime, with some having more well-defined laws
than others. In 2006, the United States became an official participant
of the Convention on Cybercrime Treaty established by the Council of
Europe in an effort to set minimum standards on international cyber
Uncertainties in jurisdiction can attribute to differences in laws.
Brenner and Koops (2004) note two situations associated with
international jurisdiction issues: (1) no one claims jurisdiction and
(2) more than one country claims jurisdiction. They explain that at a
more fundamental level, “it is unclear just what constitutes
jurisdiction: is it the place of the act, the country of residence of
the perpetrator, the location of the effect, or the nationality of the
owner of the computer that is under attack? Or all of these at once?”
(p. 3). In addition, substantive differences in laws, such as the age
at which a society considers one a minor, and the age which
distinguishes pornography from child pornography, can be problematic.
Legal and jurisdictional issues compound the technical and structural
complications associated with policing Internet fraud. The patchwork
of overlapping hierarchy of law enforcement agencies makes required
collaborations cumbersome. Moreover, historically, police tend to tie
their practices to traditional notions of territory and have had
difficulty adapting to the “abstract” nature of cyberspace (Huey,
2002). Many scholars have called for radical changes in the paradigm
of law enforcement that incorporates partnerships with non-state
entities to adapt to the information age (Wall, 2007; Nhan and Huey,
police prioritize traditional crime control activities associated with
street crime and must service the needs of localized citizens and
groups (Bayley, 2005). Consequently, the lack of adequate enforcement
stemming from law enforcement’s static nature in a dynamic environment
creates “digital disorder” online, resulting in “broken windows”
conducive to deviance (Correia & Bowling, 1999).
The present study addresses the dearth of criminological research
attention regarding online fraud (e.g., Holt and Graves, 2007).
Particularly, in May and June of 2007,wo
the reception of unsolicited emails. Exceptions were madey
the authors for those items identified as containing potentially
harmful computer code, which were counted as an item of spam but not
opened due to software restrictions at the risk of damage to computer
systems. The number of unsolicited mail contacts received at the two
reception sites totaled 603. These emails were initially sorted
to remove duplicates sent to the same
computer continuously or to both computers simultaneously. The initial
screening left a total of 476 emails that were appropriate for
The email accounts were owned and administrated by a higher education
institution. Two authors used these “.edu” accounts on a daily basis
primarily for business. The researchers have been actively using these
accounts for approximately one decade at the time of the data
collection. Email administrators filtered the emails at the
enterprise level using Microsoft Exchange Server. All filtered emails
were quarantined in the User Quarantine Release folder that is deleted
upon the discretion of the end user. Any emails that circumvented spam
filtering were collected in the inbox by the authors for analysis. The
authors intended for these accounts to represent typical email
accounts used for business over free personal accounts that are often
sold or distributed to third parties for advertising.
The general intent of this work is to provide a descriptive content
analysis of sample emails received. Accordingly, each component of the
solicitation and the solicitor identified within the documents were
The researchers evaluated emails in three stages. First, the emails
were assessed to determine whether they were used
a source of information in relation to the identified components of
the transaction. Next, the content of each email was scrutinized and
to glean individual characteristics.
Manifest content analysis was used in all three stages with the
intent to reduce any level of subjectivity in analyses of the emails.
Manifest content, which involves documenting the “visible, surface
content” of a communication and eliminates the need for much
interpretation of the underlying meanings of the material (Maxfield &
Babbie, 2005, p. 342), was selected given the nature of the data
collected. Accordingly, there was inter-rater reliability in all
Fraudulent emails have patterns and indicators that help identify
deception. For instance, researchers have found that multiple writing
techniques were used by advance fee fraudsters to generate information
and responses from potential victims (Cukier, Nesselroth, & Cody,
2007; Holt & Graves, 2007). Illegitimate emails often contain
grammatical and spelling errors
consistent with the typical protocol for advance fee frauds where
scammers initiate contact with innocuous emails to gain trust and move
on to more aggressive requests for money (e.g., Holt and Graves, 2007;
Dyrud, 2005; Symantec 2009).
This aspect of trust is perhaps the most
important element of fraud.
A potential limitation of the present work concerns the possibility
that the emails used in the present study were, in fact, legitimate.
In other words, it is possible (although unlikely) that some of the
proposals, opportunities, and offers provided in the emails analyzed
in the present study were what they claimed - offers of opportunity
and requests for needed help. However, the large percentage (42%) of
the emails containing grammatical errors and requests to immediately
transfer funds (36%) suggest the non-credible nature of these
unsolicited contacts. Still, the possibility that a small number of
credible emails may ve
had some minor impact on the overall results warrants mentioning.
also be noted that the convenience sample used in the present study is
by no means representative of all online fraud. Nevertheless, the data
certainly provide insight into the nature of online fraud. The small
sample size and limited scope of this research does not imply
generalizability, but instead offers exploratory descriptions to draw
further research considerations.
The following section presents the results from the analyses of the
emails/data. Specifically, the findings address: (1) the claimed
countries of origin from which the fraudulent emails originated; (2)
the nature and prevalence of corporate or organizational identities
used in fraudulent emails; (3) the specific types of corporate
entities used in email fraud; (4) the alleged positions of those
soliciting information/money via fraudulent emails; (5) the types of
personal information included by solicitors engaged in email fraud;
(6) the specific nature of the fraud (e.g., lottery winnings, job
offer); (7) the specified amount of money involved in the fraudulent
email; (8) the specified percentage return on investment for those who
respond to the fraudulent email, and; (9) the type and extent of
personal information solicited from potential victims.
Table 1 notes the country of origin for those distributing fraudulent
emails. The large majority of emails (70.8%) originated from the
United Kingdom (37.3%) and Nigeria (33.5%). Emails also cameom
other countries, including Taiwan (11.2%), Russia (6.8%), China
(5.6%), the Ivory Coast (3.7%), and France (1.9%). The authors did not
examine email headers with Internet service providers (ISPs) to verify
the claimed source location of the email matches with actual email
origin (email spoofing). Instead, attention was given to the claimed
source of origin, which was important in assessing if scammers
perceived positive associations with certain regions.
Claimed source of fraudulent email
Country of Origin N %
Kingdom 60 37.3
The present findings suggest a twoonged
approach by fraudsters to establish credibility and trust: (1)
claiming an association with known corporations or organizational
entities and (2) claiming an association with reputable types of
corporations. First, scammers often attempt to establish trust by
associating themselves with legitimate and highly respected businesses
and organizations. For example, one email from the “MICROSOFT/AOL
AWARD TEAM” notified its winners of a sweepstake by stating, “The
prestigious Microsoft and AOL has set out and successfully organized a
Sweepstakes marking the end of year anniversary we rolled out over
100,000.000.00 for our new year Anniversary Draws.” The email then
proceeded to ask for the potential victim’s personal information. The
top three organizations represented were from the U.S.: Microsoft
(27.1%), America Online (18.6%), and PayPal (15.7%), as noted in Table
Used Known Corporate/Organizational Entity
Organization N %
Online 13 18.6
America 9 12.9
Nations 8 11.4
Fraudsters also attempted to establish trust through associating with
credit-issuing financial corporations and authoritative organizations
and groups. As noted in Table 3, the most popular forms of industries
identified were banks (30.7%). Offenders were also likely to note an
association with various corporations (24%) and political
organizations, such as official government offices (17.9%).
Miscellaneous Corporations 43 24.0
Political Organization 32
Insurance Agency 26
engaging in email fraud often pose as respected individuals. As noted
in Table 4, those posing as others were most likely to claim a
position as a bank officer (28.6%) or a lawyer (27.1%). Others claimed
to be a politician (16.5%), a member of the clergy (12.8%), a military
officer (8.3%), or a doctor (6.8%). These categories were often
combined with reputable organizations for greater effectiveness. For
example, one scammer claimed to be a “portfolio Manager with Fidelity
Investment International (UK).” Table 4 depicts these findings.
Profession of Solicitor Provided
Apparent position N %
Officer 38 28.6
Officer 11 8.3
gain the trust of targeted victims, solicitors typically generate and
include in the email a scenario appealing to the victims’ concern for
others. Accordingly, solicitors include alleged personal information
in their emails. Most commonly, solicitors mentioned that they were
married (32.4%) or they were ill (22.7%). Others reported being a
victim of some social or political event (14.8%), having children
(11.5%), being somehow related to a victim of a tragic incident
(9.7%), or being an heir (6.5%) who will soon collect a large sum of
money that they will allegedly share. For example, one solicitor
claiming to be an HSBC bank representative stated, “I received a call
that one of my customer [sic] died in the Tsunami Disaster with his
wife and only child while on vacation at Phuket Island in Thailand.”
Table 5 depicts these findings.
Personal Information Provided by Solicitor
Apparent position N %
Social/Political Victim 41 14.8
to Victim 27 9.7
Fraudulent emails often appeal to human greed through lucrative
opportunities. The present study found two broad categories in which
operate using a two-pronged approach:
(1) the desire to share in a lucrative opportunity and (2) extremely
high returns on large amounts of money. The largest category of
fraudulent emails involved offerings of a share of discovered fortune
(43.5%), followed by a share of winnings (26.2%), requesting
assistance (19.0%), and a job offer (11.4%). Table 6 depicts these
Nature of Fraudulent Email
Specified Issue N %
Discovered Fortune 103 43.5
appeal to personal greed through promises of financial rewards. It
would seem that larger sums of financial returns would generate
greater responses from targeted victims. However, the largest
percentage of solicitors offered between $1 million and $10 million
for assistance (39.9%), followed by offerings between $10 million and
$100 million (26.2%). The smallest percentage of emails offered over
$100 million (3.5%). Table 7 depicts these findings.
Specified Amount of Money Involved
Amount N %
- $500,000 19 7.7
- $1,000,000 29 11.7
$1,000,000 - $10,000,000 99
$10,000,000 - $100,000,000 65 26.2
Fraudsters sometimes promise a percentage of large sums of money for
victim cooperation. As noted in Table 8, solicitors were most likely
to offer higher percentages of returns to potential victims.
Specifically, the largest percentage of solicitors offered fifteen
percent or more of their anticipated earnings (42.9%), followed by
promises of 10-15 percent (29.5%), 5-10 percent (17.1%), and 0-5
Specified Percentage Return on Investment
Percentage N %
5% 11 10.5
10% 18 17.1
15% 31 29.5
benefit from their fraudulent behavior, solicitors generally request
personal information they can subsequently useor
criminal behavior. Among the more frequently requested pieces of
information solicited from potential victims were email addresses
(26.7%), telephone numbers (15.1%), names (14%), and addresses
(10.6%). In one typical example, one email notification of a
sweepstakes winner asked respondents for:
Ticket Number and Serial Numbers
Interestingly, scammers solicited bank account numbers (3.2%) and
social security numbers (2.5%)
Target Information Requested
Nature of Information N %
Telephone 117 15.1
Name 108 14.0
Occupation 34 4.4
Account Number 25 3.2
Security Number 19 2.5
Status 19 2.5
Name 11 1.4
Several factors emerged from analyses of the data used in the present
study. Prominent among the findings are: (1) the top two claimed
countries of origin were the United Kingdom and Nigeria, respectively;
(2) discovered fortunes were the most prevalent selling point,
suggesting greed as an apparent motivating factor amongst victims; (3)
solicitors tended to pose as financial institutions such as banks and
reputable companies such as Microsoft; (4) solicitors generally
requested email addresses and names instead of social security and
bank account numbers, suggesting social engineering is the main avenue
towards the fraud; and (5) solicitors often represented themselves as
white-collar professionals, such as bank officers and lawyers. These
the nature of scams identified in the present study did not involve
charity; instead they focused on victims’ desires to make money.
The findings suggest that fraudsters often represent themselves as
originating primarily from the United Kingdom or Nigeria. These
findings are consistent with the scam known as advance-fee fraud
(Smith, Holmes, & Kaufmann, 1999; Glickman, 2005; Holt & Graves,
2007). This scam, which originated before the widespread use of the
Internet, uses false pretenses to lure victims into disclosing
information and ultimately sending money. It often involves a request
for victims to assist with the release of alleged funds. Advance-fee
scams often involve
release funds, inheritance moniesr
lottery winnings (Microsoft, 2009). Variants of the scam contain
elements ranging from fake checks to directing victims to
sophisticated bogus websites designed to capture personal information.
These scams appeal to many human emotions and behaviors, including
greed, fear, and sympathy.
Nigeria is presently a hot spot for fraudulent Internet scams. While
advance-fee fraud did not originate in Nigeria, the country has
certainly contributed to its proliferation. Adomi and Igun (2008)
explain that the country’s lack of enforcement and culture of
corruption are especially conducive to online fraudulent activities.
The authors comment on the conditions, stating that “Cyber
crime cannot be divorced from the widespread corruption in the
Nigerian society. There is a harsh economic climate, high
unemployment, utter disregard for the rule of law and lack of
transparency and accountability in governance” (Adomi & Igun, 2008:
and the lack of meaningful enforcement, a relatively small, but
prolific group of scammers has emerged in Nigeria. This lends itself
to two criminological theories based on rational thought: strain
theory and rational choice/deterrence theory. For instance,
strain theory proposes that deviant behavior can be attributed to a
combination of structural blockages or unavailability of lawful
societal means to achieve legitimate social goals and individuals
pursuing innovative (unlawful) means to achieve these goals
(Merton, 1938, 1964).
The prolific number of scams notoriously associated with Nigeria can
be explained by the lack of official sanctions and enforcement of
perpetrators. Rational choice theory explains human behavior as
dictated by a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
Deterrence, therefore, is only possible with proper sanctions based on
certainty, severity, and celerity of punishment (Beccaria,
1764/1986). Routines activity theory further explains
individual criminal behavior as a result of three prerequisite
conditions: (1) motivated offenders, (2) suitable crime targets, and
(3) inadequate or unwilling guardians (Cohen & Felson, 1979).
Much to the chagrin of its government,
Nigeria has garnered a reputation for frequently engaging in Internet
fraud. A study of this region highlights structural strains (Smith,
2007) that contribute to the region’s proliferation of fraudulent
emails. Adomi (2008: 718-719) identified several structural variables
that contribute to the criminogenic environment that create conditions
for opportunity: (1) ease of access to the Internet, (2) anonymity of
the Internet, (3) availability of email extractor software, (4)
ignorance of online laws, (5) economic conditions of the people, and
(6) inadequate law enforcement. Furthermore, Adomi explored different
tactics to remedy the lax enforcement in Nigeria and proposed: the
creation of a central federal agency that would target cybercrime, the
enactment of cyber laws, the regulation of cyber cafés, and the
formation of government alliances with American companies such as
Microsoft. Ironically, the Nigerian government’s association with
Microsoft is misleadingly mirrored by scammers, albeit for more
Findings from the present study suggest that fraudsters often
attempted to gain trust by representing themselves as reputable
individuals within respected companies and organizations, particularly
banks and bank officers. This finding jives with results from Holt and
Graves’ (2007) work, which found that roughly 30 percent of the
fraudulent emails they received claimed to be from bankers.
Interestingly, medical doctors, whose reputation ranks high in
American culture, were the least frequently represented persons in the
present study. Perhaps the association with financial institutions or
officers working in financial institutions appeals
the victims’ assumed interest in obtaining financial reward.
Scammers often couple business ventures with unrealistically high
returns on investments that appeal to even highly educated
individuals. The present research noted that the most popular amount
of money specified was between one and ten million dollars. Holt and
Graves (2007) noted that they received solicitations with promised
returns ranging from $90,000 to $423,000,000, and added that most
often the amount promised was in the millions. Victims targeted in the
present work were promised unrealistically high rates of returns. The
most prevalent amount given was 15% or greater, another finding that
supports the work of Holt and Graves (2007) who found that recipients
who assisted the sender (i.e., the fraudster) were most often promised
between 10 and 40 percent of the total amount. These returns on
investments of extremely large amounts of money may seem like an
obvious scam, but some individuals nevertheless fall prey. For
example, renowned University of California at Irvine psychiatrist Dr.
Louis Gottschalk was bilked out of $3 million over a 10ear
period by Nigerian scammers. Gottschalk’s attorney explained, “While
it seems unlikely, even ludicrous, that a highly educated doctor like
[Gottschalk] would fall prey to such an obvious con, that is exactly
what happened” (Lobdell, 2006).
Findings from the present research also suggest that scammers
preferred social entrées to victims over direct financial information.
In essence, phishing is a form of social engineering that requires an
element of trust as the primary mechanism for fraud. Scammers often
establish trust with potential victims through repeated personal
contact. The most requested form of information solicited from targets
were email addresses and telephone numbers; findings which concur with
results of Holt and Graves’ (2007) earlier work, and suggest that
solicitors seek long-term strategies to establish rapport with
victims. In comparison, directly exploitable information such as bank
account numbers and social security numbers were requested less often.
Social engineering has historically been usedn
electronic fraud. Perhaps the most famous hacker, Kevin Mitnick,
emphasized the use of social engineering to manipulate victims into
disclosing information that allowed him access to telephone lines and
computer systems. In his book The Art of Deception: Controlling the
Human Element of Security, Mitnick described fictional tales of
circumventing hi-tech security measures such as passwords and
physically entering unauthorized areas by simply “pretending to be
someone else and just asking for it.” Such actions are
representative of his personal exploits in the cyberpunk movement from
the late 1970s to early 1990s (Mitnick & Simon, 2002: 3).
frauds that target individual victims often focus on social
engineering. The present study regarding the content of spam supports
existing research showing that Internet scammers focus on obtaining
information from individuals by building trust rather than using
direct ways of gathering information. Therefore, electronic measures
alone cannot curtail victimization by increasingly savvy malefactors.
Several software security companies have underscored the importance of
individual prudence to supplement their products and services that
filter and warn of scams. Ultimately, the individual must be vigilant
in preventing victimization. The SEC recommends that individuals
verify financial transactions with all institutions with whom they do
business, be wary of embedded links within emails, install and update
security software, read monthly statements, and learn to spot
potential malefactors by researching non-profit websites on Internet
Internet fraud is problematic and takes many shapes and forms.
Further, Internet fraud is not restricted to the United States. For
instance, research conducted by computer security company McAfee found
that the largest target of Nigerian 419 scams is the UK, which
received 23% of all global Nigerian email scamsne
user experienced ,414
pieces of junk email in a single month (McAfee S.P.A.M. Experiment,
The United States is the second largest target, with 20% of all global
junk email. Researchers often reason that Nigerian scammers believe
the UK and US are the most lucrative countries with large numbers of
potential victims. Most spam content is written in English, further
indicating this preference by Nigerian fraudsters. However, an
assessment of the content of emails indicates that no one particular
group or country is free from attempted fraudulent activities.
The types of computer crime committed vary as computers evolve and
continuously play a significant role in society. The increased
frequency with which electronic fraud is attempted and committed
underscores the need for additional Internet fraud research. This
small but growing area of research is ripe with opportunity to explore
the changing nature of crime. Despite the increasing frequency with
which Internet fraud occurs (e.g., Baker, 1999; Sherman, 2001) and the
notable harms it generates (e.g., Farnsworth & Kelleher, 2002;
Farnsworth & Knap, 2002; Sherman, 2001), studies of Internet fraud
remain scarce in the research literature (e.g., Holt and Graves,
2007). Accordingly, the present work focused on one of the more
commonly encountered computer crimes, Internet fraud. In particular,
the present work addressed the nature of email solicitations used in
attempts to defraud victims of information and other resources, and in
doing so expanded upon and contributed to the scarce body of research
in this area. Further, findings from the present study also provide
direction for law enforcement efforts and offer guidance for
individuals solicited by electronic fraudsters. The significance of
and increasing frequency with which electronic crimes are committed
dictates additional research efforts in this area are needed.
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Critics of the treaty have underscored the expansion of law
enforcement authority and lack of legal safeguards to protect
against privacy rights.
Please note that participants in the McAfee experiment actively
clicked on online advertisements, causing an exponential growth of
spam mail received. Our study compliments this study by assessing
the contents of fraudulent messages.