Microsoft and Yahoo! join forces to combat lottery scam artists

29 Oct 2008

Con artists who prey on vulnerable users through internet lottery scams are about to meet their nemesis in the shape of a new coalition consisting of Microsoft, Yahoo!, Western Union and the African Development Bank.

Anyone with an inbox would be well aware of the threat posed by lottery hoax emails. However, in a time of economic downturn, people concerned with or affected by the crisis could be vulnerable to intensifying activities by heartless criminals hoping to take advantage of their plight.

Internet lottery scams are a form of advanced fee fraud whereby victims are deceived into paying money upfront in order to receive a fictitious gift or cash prize.

“It’s important to note that this online threat differs from those that try to exploit software code or attack computers,” said Paul Rellis, managing director at Microsoft Ireland. “Lottery scammers prey, not on software, but on the hope of their victims — and with scams that can be so creative and plausible, internet users simply don’t know who they can believe.”

Rellis said Microsoft is seeing a marked increase in the number of queries from Irish customers about these type of scams.

“We are urging all Irish consumers to report such scams through Microsoft, the NCA (National Consumer Agency) or the Garda Síochana.”

Consumers should remember that they can never win a competition they did not enter, said Ann Fitzgerald, chief executive of the NCA.

“People are understandably reluctant to report falling for scams. However, we can’t hope to tackle the issue if we don’t know how prevalent it is, and it is only by victims reporting incidences that we can begin to prevent it.

“If you are not in, you can’t win, and if you are contacted about winning a lottery when you didn’t buy a ticket, you should ignore it,” she added.

According to a survey by Microsoft, 27pc of internet users thought it likely they could fall victim to an internet lottery scam that would cost them financially.

More than half said that lottery scam emails have diminished their trust in buying goods from the internet And, as a result of internet scams, 36pc said they were more reluctant to use the internet.

Alongside Microsoft, Yahoo! is one of the world’s largest web mail providers, reaching hundreds of millions of internet users. “Yahoo! is in a unique position to help educate consumers about dangerous scams online, and we have a special responsibility to help provide a safe online experience,” said George Hadjigeorgiou, general manager of communication and community products, Yahoo! Europe.

“At Yahoo!, we’ve long told our users that if it sounds ‘too good to be true’, it probably is. But as internet fraudsters continue to get more creative in their approaches, consumers continue to be deceived. This unique initiative is a continuation of our online safety and trust initiatives and is intended to help support our consumer awareness efforts.”

Lottery scammers often masquerade behind established and credible brands to add authenticity to their hoaxes. The huge volume of emails they send, coupled with the fact that their use of the internet enables them to transcend national borders, makes it hard to understand the true scope and range of their activities.

To address this, victims of lottery scams that involve any of the coalition companies’ brands or services can report their experience to their local police authority. Interpol will communicate with national law enforcement agencies to inform them of the initiative and provide guidance on critical information to collect.

“It’s a common perception that only naive and extremely gullible people fall victim to lottery scams,” said Christopher Fischer, senior council with Western Union. “But it can happen to anyone, especially those who are experiencing financial pressure. Our goal is to help consumers protect themselves by helping them understand how our service operates and how internet lottery scams work.

“For example, we advise all consumers never to send money to a stranger using cash-to-cash money transfer services. Evidence shows that consumers themselves are the first, last and best line of defence against fraud. Consumers that are educated, well-informed and sceptical are better able to protect themselves and their hard-earned money,” Fischer said.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years