My week of e-mail scams

Luciano Pavarotti loved me like a son.

He never wrote, he never called. In fact, we never met.

But in his will the great tenor left me $31.5 million, and I have the e-mail to prove it.

I have as much chance collecting as I do hitting the high C that made him famous.

The e-mail was a recent example of a mainstay of online life -- the scam.

Warnings about these schemes, which typically promise riches but instead try to fleece the recipient, have come ad nauseam from law enforcement, government agencies and security experts all over the world.

Still the scams keep coming. Some are slick, with sophisticated graphics. Others are so crude that they were perhaps created in a dirt-floor Internet cafe shared with donkeys somewhere.

All promise a better life. And you respond to them at your peril.

To sample the latest, staffers in the Business section collected them for one workweek. Luckily, because The Times' spam filter is leaky, hundreds came through, giving us a glimpse into the current international panoply of online scams.

In flowed the unexpected inheritances, risk-free investments, lottery winnings, job offers, tax refunds, bank mistakes in our favor, unsolicited grants and much more. I answered several -- or spoke to people who did -- to get a firsthand view of how the schemes worked. For a taste of each day's bounty, turn to Page C4.

-- David Colker

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Monday

The London representative of the Pavarotti estate prepared me for the shocking news that I was an heir.

"This may sound strange and unbelievable to you," he wrote.

But it didn't sound so strange to Brian David Delany, a singer and actor in New York who got the same e-mail in January.

In 1986, Delany was a sales clerk at a Sam Goody record shop when Pavarotti visited for an autograph session.

"He was wonderful to me," said Delany, who was assigned to assist the opera great. "He said for me to keep on practicing my vocals."

When the e-mail came, Delany, who goes by the stage name Ian Starr, thought his idol had remembered him. For the next several weeks he exchanged e-mails with the "estate," which instructed him to wire nearly $800 for "transfer" fees.

Luckily before he did, Delany's brother warned him it was a scam.

But perhaps it provided creative stimulus. One of Delany's latest songs, a self-recorded effort, is called "Illusion."

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Tuesday

It was our lucky day.

Lottery wins have become a staple of online scams, and on this day staffers received congratulations on winning contests in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Britain and Thailand.

Our total haul: $17.5 million. Not a bad day at the office.

We hadn't entered any of these lotteries, but we didn't have to.

"All participants were selected through our Microsoft computer ballot system," explained the Netherlands contest, "as part of international e-mail promotion."

Now it made sense.

In each case, we were to reply by e-mail or call to claim the prize.

At least some of these were fake-check scams, including the Thai contest that required that a fee be paid out of winnings to a company that "played the lottery in your name."

The winnings check probably would turn out to be counterfeit. The scammers hope that that won't be discovered until the fee is wired to them, turning the lottery winner into a two-time loser.

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Wednesday

Oprah Winfrey is everywhere else these days, so why not also in scams?

On this day, a smiling Oprah was shown in an e-mail promoting "Genuine Slimming Teabags."

Indeed, the tea is mentioned on the Oprah website -- but not happily.

An Oprah fan posted a message on the site saying she had bought the product because it was "endorsed" by her idol. Not only that, she had won a contest with a prize of $10,000 from the tea company, but the money never arrived.

An employee of the site calling himself Harpobear wrote back to say the endorsement was a fraud. Winfrey had nothing to do with it.

"There are many scams out there that say a product was 'featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show,' " Harpobear wrote.

Another company woefully accustomed to being mentioned in scams is CareerBuilder.com, which features employment want ads.

An e-mail from a "growing consulting company" looked as if it had come from the CareerBuilder site. The ad offered $2,000 a month, plus commission, for a part-time position. No job description or company was named, but the workload was to be minimal.

CareerBuilder spokeswoman Jennifer Grasz confirmed that the ad did not come from the company site, which is owned partly by Tribune Co., parent of this newspaper.

I answered it anyway. Nine minutes later, I got a reply saying that out of hundreds of applicants, I had gotten the job!

Must have been my winning personality.

I would be a "Customer Relationship Manager" and I'd have to work only three hours a day. In fact, they would simply send me checks to process, and I would wire the money to them, keeping a fee.

Can anyone say "fake-check scam"?

I'd better keep the day job.

--

Thursday

Sarah May wrote to say that she was dying. "But I don't want you to feel sorry for me," she wrote, "because I believe everyone will die someday."

That settles that.

Sarah went on to say she was a widow, had no children and had chosen me specifically to be her beneficiary. That seemed odd because the e-mail was addressed "Dear Sir/Madam."

I wrote back for details and was told I would be getting $5.5 million. All she needed was my guarantee that I would give 80% to charity. Also, she needed my bank account information.

The same day, a colleague got a note from Mary Allen. She had $8.5 million and needed help getting out of the Ivory Coast with her money.

If only my friend would send money for a lawyer, he would get 20%.

This was a variation of the "Spanish Prisoner" scam that has been going on since at least the 1920s. Businessmen were contacted back then and told that a prisoner secretly possessing a fortune was locked up in a foreign country. All that was needed was funding to spring the prisoner (often a beautiful woman) and fortune would be forthcoming.

No matter how much money was sent, however, the scheme would fail and more funding would be needed.

Some scams never die; they just change location.

Nigeria has been the source of so many scams in recent years that they rival oil as its most famous export. But other West African countries have gotten into the act. Several e-mails were received from Ghana, including one from a man who gave his name as Kweku. He offered a "risk-free transaction" based on "mutual trust." The jackpot: $60 million.

I sent a text message to his phone, and he called back with a complicated tale involving lockboxes left by his late father in a "security building." Kweku offered to have the boxes delivered to me by a "United Nations diplomat." Then Kweku would travel to the U.S., unlock the boxes and give me 25% for my trouble.

All I had to do was send $1,500 to have the ownership of the boxes legally transferred to me.

I declined, but gained a new phone friend. In the next few days, Kweku called almost once an hour, trying to get me to change my mind.

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Friday

Getting millions of dollars from a stranger is obviously suspect. But what about $134.80 from the Internal Revenue Service?

More than 10 colleagues received, on this day alone, a notice from the IRS that they were getting back that amount as an instant refund.

All that was required was a return e-mail listing Social Security, credit card and ATM personal identification numbers, plus mailing address and date of birth.

In other words, the perfect formula for identity theft.

The final e-mail of the workweek was sent from Hong Kong to a colleague, saying that a relative with an estate of $20 million had died. I answered, asking for details. A quick reply told me that the relative was Michael R. Colker.

Great. I finally get a rich uncle and he's a scam.

I was going to write back to ask what the "R" stood for, but I didn't have time. I had to count all the millions that didn't come my way that week.

--

david.colker@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

You know it's an online scam when . . .

* You've won a lottery you didn't enter.

* The IRS sends you unsolicited e-mail.

* You've inherited money from a relative you've never heard of.

* A stranger asks you to wire money.

* A job offer arrives from a person you've never met.

* Money is needed to get someone you don't know out of prison.

* You're offered a business deal that will make you a millionaire.

* It sounds too good to be true.

-- David Colker

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