Internet scams have been around for years, but the Federal Trade Commission’s recent crackdown on robocallers pushing car warrantees has put a spotlight on the thousands of tactics used by scammers to bilk Americans out of millions.
So why are they so successful?
One of the keys to scammers' success is a constant flow of unsuspecting victims. Another, experts say, is that scammers are targeting specific demographics, whether it's by age, race or sex.
“The problem now is that so much information is available on the Internet,” FBI spokesman Richard Kolko told FOXNews.com. “Before [scammers] might have known your name. Now they [can access] your name, address, place of employment and parents’ names, because it is all readily available.”
And as fast as investigators try put a stop to the schemes, scammers are reinventing their tricks and staying one step ahead of authorities and the public.
The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center has received 1 million complaints related to scams in the past three years, and the Federal Trade Commission received over 350,000 complaints about identity theft and Internet services.
“Everyone is a target,” said Kolko. “Whether you’ve been affected directly by the scams or not, everyone in this country is affected,” he said, pointing out that it drives up retail prices across the board.
Here's a list of nine of the nastiest scams in the business — some you've heard of, some you haven't — but none that you can afford to be in the dark about.
1. Asian Invasion: The "Asian Extortion Scam" targets business owners, mostly of Asian decent, with death threats and other violence. Scammers pluck personal information about their targets from online searches and use the sensitive data to make victims feel vulnerable. The extortionists, who appear to be calling from outside the U.S., generally demand between $10,000 and $30,000 — though the FBI says there have been no reports of actual violence stemming from the schemes.
2. Mystery Shopping Scam: Some companies pay "mystery shoppers" to act as sample customers and test out the service at stores, banks and restaurants. But scammers are now targeting stay-at-home moms with "opportunities" to be defrauded of thousands of dollars. Victims receive a letter in the mail from a company offering about $400 for shopping at a few stores, along with a check for thousands of dollars to fund the purchases. The victim deposits the check into their back account, stops by a few stores and is then asked to wire about $2,000 back to the company. But when the original check bounces, victims are out the $2,000 they wired back — plus all the money they spent to go shopping.
3. Hit Man Scam: In the Hit Man e-mail scheme, scammers send letters claiming that the boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse of the recipient has arranged for their death. "It would say something like, 'Your boyfriend paid $30,000 to have you killed, but if you pay me $15,000 it won’t happen,'" Kolko told FOXNews.com. Another version says a loved one will be kidnapped unless an advance ransom is paid out immediately, naming specific relatives (information found courtesy of — you guessed it — more online searches). Kolko said some recipients feel anxious when the sender names their loved ones, which can make them more apt to believe the threat is authentic.
4. Million Dollar Scam: If you're offered a shot on the "Oprah Millionaire Contest Show," you're not going to be the lucky winner of $1 million — you're the target of a new scam. In order to participate, recipients of the scam e-mail must first send their contact information and are required to buy airfare and a ticket to the show in advance. Victims are later asked to fill out questionnaires seeking detailed personal information, which can put them at risk for identity theft. Other scammers have been mailing counterfeit checks with a letter that claims recipients they have won the "Oprah Show Summer Sweepstakes" — a contest that ended in 2006.
5. Grandparents Scam: "Hi grandma, it's your favorite grandson," says a scammer on the line. "Tommy, is that you?" "Yes, grandma, it's Tommy. Listen, my wallet was just stolen and I've lost all of my money. Do you think you could send me some to make it through the end of the month?" Unsuspecting victims, momentarily confused or suffering from hearing loss, go along with the story and wire money out — up to $15,000 in the case of one giving grandmother who thought she was sending $15,000 to help cover an auto accident, according to the Better Business Bureau.
6. Military Wheels: People posing as U.S. troops have been posting to classifieds Web sites offering cars on the cheap that they have to sell quickly before being deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. The scams typically claim there is a third-party protection program to ensure a safe transaction, but when payments are sent to the "secure" service, victims either don't receive the car, or get stolen vehicles or ones with a salvaged title.
7. Jury Scam: Victims of the Jury Scam get an e-mail containing a fake subpoena ordering recipients to testify before a grand jury, complete with seemingly genuine details like your name, a case number and court seal. But the e-mails contain malware that can ruin a computer. Another version of the scam involves a phone call in which the caller claims to be a jury coordinator and intimidates victims into revealing personal information. Once the caller gets a victim's Social Security Number and birth date, it's all over.
8. Border Bust: Spam claiming to be from a former assistant commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol says a foreign diplomat has been stopped with a consignment of thousands or even millions of dollars, which was found to be an inheritance for the recipient. Victims who get drawn in receive more e-mails claiming it is a crime to carry the consignment into the U.S., and demands personal information and a $250 fee to prove the recipient was not involved in a terrorist act. If they fail to do so, the spammers tell their victims they are proving they intended to smuggle the money into the U.S., which is a federal offense. Victims never receive a dime but will continue to get e-mails demanding more money for fees in connection with getting their "inheritance."
9. FBI Scams: The FBI says there have been "tons of complaints" about e-mails from people claiming to be FBI agents. Some appear to be from the Internet Crime Complaint Center and say the recipient has extorted money and must refund the money or face prosecution. Others, from the non-existent Anti-Terrorist and Monetary Crimes Division, inform recipients that they are the beneficiary of millions in inheritance. To claim the money, recipients must supply their full name, address and bank account number. Scammers even incorporate the names of top FBI executives into their e-mails by reading authentic FBI press releases, lending an air of credibility.