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ONLINE EXTORTION
E-Mail Scam Includes Hit-Man Threat

01/15/07

Excerpt of Extortion Note
The scam e-mail, which first appeared in December, threatens to kill recipients if they do not pay the sender. It's a scam. FBI officials recommend you don't reply.

A new scam cropping up in e-mail boxes across the country is preying not on recipients’ greed or good intentions, but on their fears. The scam e-mail, which first appeared in December, threatens to kill recipients if they do not pay thousands of dollars to the sender, who purports to be a hired assassin.

About 115 complaints have been filed with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) since the scam emerged, according to special agent John Hambrick, who heads IC3. He said the extortion scam does not appear to target anyone specifically and that IC3 has not received any reports of money loss or threats carried out.

“This is a hoax, so do yourself a favor and don’t respond,” Hambrick said.

Replying to the e-mails just sends a signal to senders that they’ve reached a live account. It also escalates the intimidation, Hambrick said.

In one case, a recipient responded that he wanted to be left alone and threatened to call authorities. The scammer, who was demanding an advance payment of $20,000, e-mailed back and reiterated the threat, this time with some personal details about the recipient—his work address, marital status, and daughter’s full name. Then an ultimatum:

“TELL ME NOW ARE YOU READY TO DO WHAT I SAID OR DO YOU WANT ME TO PROCEED WITH MY JOB? ANSWER YES/NO AND DON’T ASK ANY QUESTIONS!!!”

Bill Shore, a special agent who supervises the computer crime squad in the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office, said recipients should not be overly spooked when scammers incorporate their intended victims’ personal details in their schemes.

“Personal information is widely available,” he said. “Even if a person does not use the Internet or own a computer, they could still be the victim of a computer crime such as identity theft.”

The extortion scam is a less subtle variation of some other e-mail scams designed to trick recipients into turning over money or personal information. Nigerian Letter schemes, in which recipients are offered the "opportunity" to share in a percentage of millions of dollars if they would first front some of their own money, are among the most prolific, along with phishing scams where recipients are asked in unsolicited e-mails to “update” their personal information.

The new extortion e-mails vary in style and content and generally contain misspellings and some broken English. But the underlying message appears to be the same: pay the sender or risk the alternative. A scam e-mail in December said as much:

“I have followed you closely for one week and three days now … Do not contact the police or F.B.I. or try to send a copy of this to them, because if you do I will know, and might be pushed to do what I have being (sic) paid to do.”

IC3 recently noted a new twist in the scam. Now e-mails are surfacing that claim to be from the FBI in London and inform recipients that an arrest was made in the case. The e-mail says the recipient’s information was found on the suspect and that they should reply to help further the investigation. This, too, is a scam.

The scams, agent Shore said, “are an opportunity to raise awareness about Internet fraud.” The best defense is to protect your personal information as best you can and to delete—unopened—unsolicited SPAM e-mail.

For more information on scams, visit our Common Fraud Schemes page. IC3 also has information on Internet crime schemes and prevention tips.

To report Internet crime, contact IC3 or your local FBI field office.