Spotting Scam Emails

Emails are used by scammers / fraudsters because of the complete anonymity they give. Email addresses contains no identity clues and no ID proof is required to acquire them. Email addresses are completely location neutral so you can't even tell if they are really coming from the country they purport to. To all intents and purposes, emails are free and therefore ideal for bulk simultaneous mailings about many items.

Fortunately there are steps you can take to try to ascertain the validity of the sender.

Check the sender

The very first thing is to look at the actual email address. Scammer emails are most often Yahoo, Hotmail or other easily acquired General Domain accounts and often contain numbers or the phrases 'luv', 'sexy',’4real', '4luv' or '4u' in their addresses .

Then you can check the IP address the email came from. If the scammer is just using an Internet Cafe or is not too internet savvy this will tell you where they are sending the email from. Sadly any email in relation to a commercial offer or dating/relationship advert coming from Nigeria is almost certainly the start of a scam. Fraud has been quoted by Police Authorities as second only to the Oil industry in Nigeria. Many websites offering services routinely simply discard any replies to adverts if they originated in Nigeria. Others put them into a quarantine box for closer examination. Nigeria is not the only culprit in Africa and scams come routinely from the whole of West Africa as well as gangs located in Europe so this is not an ABSOLUTE test.

At the very least though, the IP trace will tell you whether what they say in the email about where they are is confirmed by IP address. There are a number of websites which will allow you to check IP locations and also some known scammer addresses. There are also dedicated lists of Yahoo! and eBay-based scammer email addresses available.

Beware though that the IP address check is is not a foolproof test since more experienced fraudsters can disguise the originating location. You should continue to exercise caution even if they pass the IP test.

Clues in the text

Rule Number 1 – Read the email carefully!

Rule Number 2 – Use your common sense!

(That's after the universal rule – If it looks too good to be true, it is!)


The first thing to do is to look for any clues or inconsistencies in the body of the text. Sometimes the first email will be relatively OK since there are people in scamming countries or Internet cafes that actually sell pre-written, relatively well-worded advert responses. In most cases though, scammers don't even bother and clues are more readily apparent. Even with a purchased stock response, because scammers are sending out hundreds of speculative emails looking for a response they get things wrong. Does the response look as if the respondent actually knows about what you are offering/looking for? If you are selling a motorbike and the reply says they are interested in your car – It's a scam. Do they sound as if they are knowledgeable enough about the item/offer/requirement? Does the email even refer directly to what is on offer or is it a 'generic' looking response? (See the final 'test' example below to see a generic response actually received by a seller.)


Check the name of the respondent. Scam emails from certain countries often confuse first names and last names (e.g. Johnstone Michael) It's not impossible but put this down as a black mark! It has been noted that the last names Smith, Williams, Cole or Moore are very commonly used and often used interchangeably as first/last names eg. Cole Williams. Check for consistency in the name they use on any replies to your email. Any differences could just be inadvertent typos but they could also be an 'overworked' scammer trying to get his emails out in a rush to get rich and forgetting which identity or spelling they put in the original! Black mark!


Scammers often use a full honorific when describing themselves - "I am Mr Williams Cole " or "My name is Barrister Williams Moore " in a way which would not seem natural in normal usage (but again this is only another clue to be added to the cumulative total.)

Fraudsters (particularly involved in 419 scams) often use titles (General, Prince, Chief or Sir even King!) and are especially fond of legal titles such as Barrister or Judge to prove their trustworthiness. They frequently use these titles in the text of the scam. (One recently convicted Nigerian Scammer WAS named in court as 'Chief XXX, so perhaps that part could be true!)

Look out for buyers/corresponders referring to themselves as 'truthful', 'trustworthy', 'god-fearing' 'righteous' or 'religious'. They obviously feel they need to instill confidence at too early a stage. They can't help it – Black mark.

Scammers on flatsharing or room-to-let sites and introduction sites often want to make themselves more attractive to flatmates/companions by using descriptions of themselves as 'models' or 'actors' as well as the 'trustworthy' words above. They will often offer to send photographs at an early stage. Very often these are just taken from a modelling website! Take extra care.


Check your own name on the email! Is the emailer addressing yourself or another person ( "My Dearest Harry Thomas ", when you are Joe Higgins.)? Scammers are conversing simultaneously with many prospective victims and can't be expected to keep it all together!

Language and style

Look at the greeting. 'Goodday' is very prevalent. Do they start to use endearments too soon or too effusively?

Scammers often use 'textspeak' extensively - "U said U were selling ", "I have a cheque 4U. "

Is the level of English what you would expect from the alleged identity? Scam emails often use bad English – "i will like to buy …. " Note also the frequent use of the lower-case "i " instead of "I ". This is very common.

Look for the phrase 'final price'' or 'final asking price' even though you've not been bargaining. This is a common way of referring to the sale price in certain countries where no price is fixed and the usage carries though to emails. It is also used to rank the order in which they will respond with their next emails. They're not interested in the goods only the size of the price-ticket!

Geography/local knowledge

Is any geography mentioned in the email correct? "My son lives in WC2H in the city of Warwickshire ". (This is a real example!) Do they know correctly where you/the goods/property are located in relation to the alleged buyer? If a genuine buyer does not recognise the location they will ASK.

Typical ploys

Are they trying to rush you into closing or cancelling an online auction early with an offer you can't refuse? Are they asking for a 'buy-it-now' price even though yours is an open auction? Both are ploys employed on online auction sites. These approached are banned by the protocol of the auction sites for good reason! Have you received a 'second chance' offer? Check the sender to check it really is the auction site sending it. EBay report that this is now a common practice and can be most easily spotted because the scammer requests the 'second chance' payment via Western Union instead of PayPal.

Does the first or subsequent email ask if you accept a cheque/money order/bankers draft? If so refer immediately to the Overpayment or Advance Payment Scam section of this document.

Beware of offers to buy items without inspection. Is it realistic to believe this? Didn't you expect the eventual buyer (and a lot of timewasters) to come around and kick the car tyres or ask you to take them around the harbour in the boat before haggling you down? OK, So why expect a full-price offer to buy out of the blue on email? It's just not right!

Beware and THROW IN THE BIN any offer to buy at over the selling price (!) or to send a Cheque/Money Order/Bankers Draft for more than the asking price FOR ANY REASON. If you get this, then refer IMMEDIATELY to the Overpayment or Advance Payment Scam in this document for details about how this scam works. The stories fraudsters tell about why this has to be done ( "My Commission as an Agent ", "Shipping fees included in the cheque ", "other items to be paid for at the same time ", "Secretary made a mistake ", "I'm paid by cheque and want to use part of this to pay for the item " etcetera.) are many, varied and inventive but ALL UNTRUE. Just discontinue correspondence straight away and concentrate on the real buyers. On just ONE DAY in 2005 Police at Heathrow checking courier packets from Nigeria discovered over £20MILLION in false cheques destined for auction or classified sales.

Subsequent contacts

Keep up the common-sense check with any subsequent emails. In fact try to promote response emails . The more they have to respond the more likely they are to make mistakes if they are not genuine. Even if they bought an 'off-the-shelf' email response to your advert, they are often on their own from this point on. The first thing you are likely to notice is a marked drop in the quality of the English because this is not their first language. If the level of literacy/English/punctuation changes dramatically after the first email then be more suspicious. Again this is not foolproof or by any means certain but should be a black mark.

Look for slip-ups such as referring to the wrong item. They may have a large portfolio of scams on the go at any one time or could just be part of a team using one person's name for contacts. Look out for other slip-ups such as forgetting something already mentioned or contradictions with previous corresondence. Look out for errors in the email signature or changes in style.

Remember that any correspondence at this stage should be about building up trust to do the deal. Any black marks detract from this. It is a cumulative process. You might consider one or two black marks to be of minor importance but if the black marks build up, then consider walking away from the deal.

Example of an attempted scam email

Here is an actual email received by a UK website:

My name is Mr.Donald Brown,I am highly interested in making payment for the
room you advertised for rent,I want to make the payment on behalf of my
Daughter who intends to be at your location to further her education,I am
currently in the dublin.So I would like you to let me know how much you will
be charging per month.
So, try to get back to me as soon as you can and also I hope the environment
is a quit-condusive and peaceful place for her to concentrate and further
her education, and note that your payment will be made to you via Money
I look forward to receiving your response as soon as possible with the FINAL
ASKING PRICE and if u want me to send my daughter's pics,let me know.Thanks
Mr.Donald Brown "

Points to note:

Then the big ones!

Scam! Scam! Scam!

Another example - This is a test for you!

Here is another real example

"Hello seller,

I am very much interested in the immediate purchase of your item. i am actually buying it for a client.payment will be made with cheque.The payment you will recieve will include shipping fee,insurance and my own commission as an agent.After your confirmation that the money cleared your bank,i will want the shipment cost and my comission fees that has been agree with my client sent to my shipper via western union money transfer in one of their outlet around you so that the shipper can begin all neccessary shipment procedure/pick up of the item in your place.if you agree with me to this capacity i would be grateful you reply my email and give me your full name and contact address/phone number and your finalprice for the item so that i will have my client notified of your acceptance of the offer. thanks for your understanding. i will wait your quick response asap. Get back to me. REGARDS "

Scam or No Scam? You decide! just look at the clues above and make up your own mind.