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Protect Yourself and Your Organization from E-Mail Scams, 2004 Update

April 2004

If it sounds too good to be true ... well, you know the rest.

The Internet is great way for potential donors and volunteers to find your organization. Unfortunately, it can also expose you to some of cyberspace's less desirable denizens. E-mail scam artists have been filling up in boxes with offers of secretive get-rich-quick schemes for years now. Usually sent from a developing African nation, the e-mail explains how the sender has come into possession of a staggeringly large sum of money and needs your help to get it out of the country. Of course, you will be generously rewarded for all your efforts.

Although the details are ever changing, the modus operandi remains fairly constant. At some point you'll be asked to send money, perhaps as a bribe for a customs official, or to provide your bank account information, ostensibly for the purpose of making a deposit. Either way, these are sound indicators that you may become involved in a bad situation.

In a troubling twist, some variations of this scam have been targeting nonprofits. Numerous charities have reported receiving e-mails purportedly from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "direct impact grant program." These e-mails are fraudulent and have no connection to the foundation.

A few scam artists have even begun dropping GuideStar's name as the source of your e-mail address, in an attempt to gain the illusion of legitimacy. Rest assured, GuideStar would never provide a list of participants' e-mail addresses to any individual or organization. These scammers scour the Internet, harvesting e-mail addresses from a variety of sources. Although this type of activity is illegal, enforcement is difficult. You can, however, protect yourself and your organization from these scams through awareness and by reporting them to the proper authorities.

Reporting Suspicious E-mails

If you receive a suspicious e-mail that mentions GuideStar, please let us know. In the interest of doing our best to protect the nonprofits listed in our database, we want to know about any illegal or inappropriate use of our site. You can e-mail a copy to info@guidestar.org.

Unsolicited e-mails claiming to come from a foundation need to be checked out. Rather than reply to such an e-mail, it would be prudent to look up the organization's contact information from a reputable site such as GuideStar and contact them directly. If the e-mail is a scam, they'll let you know.

The U.S. Secret Service has issued an advisory regarding so-called "Nigerian" schemes, such as the first example mentioned at the beginning of this article. Such confidence games are also known as "4-1-9" (after the section of the Nigerian penal code that addresses fraud) or "Advance Fee Fraud" scams. The advisory is available at www.secretservice.gov/alert419.shtml.

"The criminals," notes the advisory, "obtain the names of potential victims from a variety of sources including trade journals, professional directories, newspapers, and commercial libraries. They do not target a single company, but rather send out mailings en masse." The perpetrators often provide official-looking documentation to "prove" their authenticity.

Authorities believe that people lose "hundreds of millions of dollars annually" to Nigerian schemes, and that this amount is growing. In response, the Secret Service has established Operation 4-1-9 to combat the scam internationally. The Secret Service asks victims of Nigerian fraud schemes to send documentation to:

United States Secret Service
Financial Crimes Division
950 H Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001


To telephone, call (202) 406-5850; to e-mail, go to Secret Service Web site and complete the form.

If you have received a suspicious letter or e-mail but have not lost money to a Nigerian scam, you can fax a copy of the message to the Secret Service at (202) 406-5031.

The Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IFCC), a joint project of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center, also accepts complaints from individuals and organizations defrauded in e-mail schemes. IFCC staff forward the complaints as appropriate to law-enforcement officials throughout the country.

If you have received a suspicious e-mail, you can forward the message to the IFCC at the same URL, even if you did not fall prey to the fraud.

Words to the Wise

The IFCC offers tips on protecting yourself from Internet fraud. These suggestions are as appropriate for nonprofit organizations as they are for individuals. They include the following advice:

  • Do not believe the promise of large sums of money for your cooperation.
  • Do your homework on the individual or company to ensure that they are legitimate.
  • Guard your account information carefully.
And, perhaps most important of all:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Patrick Ferraro, Suzanne E. Coffman, April 2004
© 2004, Philanthropic Research, Inc.