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Protecting Yourself and Your Organization from E-Mail Scams


The e-mail carries an intriguing subject line: "NOTIFICATION OF CLAIM." Your charity, the text explains, has been bequeathed money by an individual associated with Nigeria. Please contact the sender immediately and provide documentation verifying your identity and certifying that you will use the funds as your benefactor intended.
Or perhaps you received a message from a woman whose father is considering donating to your organization. At least, that's what youthink it says—the broken English makes the writer's meaning unclear, and the reference to her father's impending surgery further confuses the issue. It is clear, however, that your correspondent wants you to send your contact information "or your bank account details" to a third party. The author also asks for your Web site address to enable her to learn more about your organization and make an informed recommendation to her father.

Then there's the plea from the man whose finances—as well as his mother's—were wiped out when the company in which they had invested folded. Ill health prevents him from working and creditors are hounding the pair, but he has found another investment opportunity that will rapidly solve these problems. Can you point him toward a source of venture capital? He can guarantee that the principal will be repaid promptly.

During the past three months, all of these e-mails have been sent to GuideStar or to nonprofits that participate in GuideStar. The messages resemble letters that have been used in the past to bilk money from individuals and for-profit businesses. The evidence suggests that these e-mails were sent for the same purpose.

"Nigerian" Scams

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 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 masses." 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 the 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.

Other Schemes

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.

To file a complaint with the IFCC, go to 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:

  • Be cautious when responding to special investment offers (especially through unsolicited e-mail).
  • Beware when responding to e-mail that may not have been sent by a reputable company.
  • Be cautious when dealing with individuals/companies from outside your own country.
  • Don't invest in anything you are not absolutely sure about. Do your homework on the investment to ensure that it is legitimate.
  • Do your homework on the individual or company to ensure that they are legitimate.
  • Inquire about all the terms and conditions.
  • Do not believe the promise of large sums of money for your cooperation.
And, perhaps most important of all:

  • Guard your account information carefully.
  • If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

To read the complete list, go to

suzanne-coffman-150x150.jpgThe preceding post is by Suzanne Coffman, GuideStar’s editorial director. See more of Suzanne’s sector findings and musings on philanthropy here on our blog. 
Topics: Nonprofits E-Mail Scams