WHAT could be nicer in these gloomy economic times than hearing you've just won a free holiday? Or being offered a pricey designer handbag at a knock-down price?
Online fraudsters are wily animals adept at exploiting the frailties or otherwise of human nature. Offering a free holiday or a cheap luxury item are common internet scams used to relieve the unsuspecting of their hard-earned cash.
If they sound like nasty ways of making money, consider this one. Days after Burma was struck by a cyclone that killed tens of thousands and left many more homeless, emails were winging their way around the internet purporting to be from charitable organisations looking for donations.
They were not. They were sent by internet scammers who had gone to the trouble of setting up official-looking websites encouraging people to send donations via Western Union. Needless to say, what money was sent didn't go to help the suffering people of Burma.
There can be very few people with an email address who have not received a letter from some troubled stranger in Nigeria asking for their bank account details. Most of us know to ignore them. But friends of journalist Afric McGlinchey, who has connections with Africa, recently received an email from her saying that she was stranded in Nigeria and needed money quickly. It was her email, but the message didn't come from her.
Afric was a victim of an increasingly common scam and one specifically designed to catch people unawares. The previous afternoon she received an email from Yahoo saying that the company was clearing up its email accounts and needed to know if she was still using her account.
If she was and didn't want the account closed, she needed to send them back her email details including her password.
The email wasn't from Yahoo but from an internet scammer who then hacked into her email account. From there he sent out a fake email to her friends saying she was in trouble and needed money.
One quick email to save an account she believed was going to be closed caused Afric an enormous amount of hassle. She still worries she may get stung financially.
Internet scammers put a great deal of effort into collecting people's email addresses. They even buy and sell lists of emails. If you have ended up on one of those lists, expect to be a target, not just once but several times over.
According to the anti-fraud internet site fraudwatchers.org, the best way to avoid email scams is to be careful about giving away your email address in the first place. Think twice about publishing it on the internet.
Fraudwatchers recommends not getting involved in "chain-mails", the type that encourage you to "forward this email to 10 of your friends".
"This type of email exposes your email address, and that of your friends, to unknown people further down the line," it points out.
If you do start receiving emails that are obviously scams, be on the lookout for clever ones that might catch you unawares. This is particularly true of official-looking emails from reputable companies.
No reputable company will ask you to email password information or bank account details. Certainly no bank will email you asking for account information.
Never reply to a scammer. After a few emails they often give up. They send out thousands of scam emails every day and they expect the response rate to be low. People are either aware of the scam or the email provider catches the emails. Anyone who does reply will find themselves targeted again and again.
Scammers are professional criminals and, aside from asking for money or bank account details, they need "safe" addresses to ship their ill-gotten gains to.
They use stolen credit cards to buy products on the internet but, of course, don't want the goods sent directly to their houses.
So they often go looking for "correspondence managers", people who will accept packages and forward them on, often in exchange for a promised fee.
At best the unwitting victim is helping rip-off another victim. At worst, they could end up being centre stage of a police investigation.
Sometimes victims of internet scams are reluctant to speak out, often because they feel silly for falling for the scam in the first place. Both for your own and other people's sake, it's best to get over the embarrassment factor as quickly as possible. If you have sent password information contact your email service provider immediately.
Contact your bank if you have emailed your account details to anyone.
If you have agreed to receive packages, bring them immediately to the gardai.
It's also important to alert others to the scam, particularly if it's a new one.
Websites like Fraudwatchers monitor new scams all the time and will be grateful to receive information.
In Ireland, the website www.askaboutmoney.com contains a section where people can alert others to new scams.
Above all, if you are even mildly concerned that something might be a scam, check it out.