For a good email scam to work, it has to grab your attention immediately.
So an official-sounding notice that you are about to get tossed out of your home certainly would seem to meet that test.
And that’s what many puzzled homeowners and renters are facing these days as a bogus eviction email scam is once again making the rounds across the country.
For Bill of Albuquerque, the steady stream of emails began last month, carrying the eye-popping headings of “Notice to quit,” “Vacate notice” and “Move out notification.”
Each one urged him to click on a link to read the “official notification from the court.”
“We have been receiving these emails off and on throughout February,” he informed me by email earlier this month. “Needless to say we have not clicked the link. You might want to let people know through your column that this fraud is occurring and to NOT click on the link.”
Kudos to him for observing one of the key rules in protecting yourself and your computer from email scams: Never click on a link or an attachment contained in an unsolicited email, particularly if the subject or header makes you suspicious.
If he had, chances are good he would have downloaded malware onto his computer that could have given scam artists access to his confidential information.
Bill told the Journal last week that he had received four of these emails but wasn’t tempted to access the dangerous link for a couple of good reasons.
First, he has lived in his home for 30 years and paid off his mortgage roughly 15 years ago. So in his case, the eviction notice made absolutely no sense.
But more to the point, he makes it a practice to be extremely skeptical when he receives “fishy” emails from someone he doesn’t know.
So what was his initial reaction when he received the first eviction email last month?
“This is stupid. If you think I’m going to click on that, you’re crazy,” he said with a laugh.
“Generally, I toss something that looks kind of fishy or isn’t from someone I know into my trash.”
Still, he acknowledges that the fear factor could be enough to persuade someone to follow the link.
“For somebody who doesn’t understand these things, it could scare them enough to click on it,” he said.
Bill said he forwarded a few of the emails to the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, which falls under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. US-CERT collects and investigates consumer reports related to phishing, malware and software vulnerabilities.
Of course, there is another reason to be suspicious of the eviction email scam. States have specific laws that govern the eviction of individuals from their homes or apartments – and a generic email signed by a “court representative” or a “real estate agency” that gives you a few weeks to respond or get out isn’t one of them.
Now be aware that not every eviction scam notice is worded exactly the same, but they contain many of the same characteristics. As an example, here is the text of one shared by the Better Business Bureau Serving Northern Colorado and Wyoming in a warning notice issued Feb. 27:
This notice is to inform you that your home has been foreclosed on by the bank and you need to move out until (sic) March 21, 2014.
To make the necessary arrangements you have to contact us in the earliest possible time.
If you decide to cooperate and fulfill your obligations, the bank will offer you a reasonable period of time for moving out.
Otherwise, you will be evicted in an administrative proceeding.
Please do contact us in the shortest possible time.
Enclosed is the detailed statement of the bank.
Real estate agency,
Specifically, here is what’s at stake, according to OnlineThreatAlerts.com, a website dedicated to protecting Internet users from the endless string of cyberthreats to your computer.
Once you click on the link, a “Trojan horse” – think Greek mythology – is downloaded onto your computer, which gives someone other than yourself control of your computer. This person can then steal sensitive personal and financial information or even use your computer to commit other cybercrimes.
If you already have taken the bait, the website states, you are strongly advised to run a full virus scan of your computer and remove the unwelcome intruder.
Here is another tip courtesy of the Tri-State Better Business Bureau in Evansville, Ind.: Don’t open messages, attachments, or click on links in emails from people you don’t know. Even if you know the person, the BBB says, remember their accounts could have been hacked.
“All I can say is if you get an email from someone you don’t know, think twice and really study it,” Bill said. “Think twice before you click on a link.”
Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 505-823-3847 or on Twitter at @nickpapp if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.