Thursday, October 18, 2007

419 Scammers Using Google Search to Find New Victims

By Coenraad De Beer

I've heard of phishing scammers using Google Maps to reveal the location of a victim, but I haven't heard of scammers using Goole Search to find the e-mail addresses of possible prospects for advance fee fraud. However I was surprised to find such a search last week when I browsed through the visitor statistics of

419 Scammers are starting to use technology more often to swindle innocent victims. We see advanced and professionally designed e-mails and websites, clever social engineering skills and scam e-mails targeted at specific people. That was probably the aim of the scammer who used Google Search to find Yahoo! and AOL e-mail addresses of people in the USA, who are desperately in need of funds. Yes the exact search string used by this scammer was "email address of people in the usa that are in need of fund @yahoo or aol mail". The scammer landed on our Lottery Scams page where we refer to the fact that scammers often use Yahoo! and AOL e-mail accounts to distribute fraudulent e-mails. We recently made some changes to this page and as a result it's no longer appearing in the results for this specific search string.

A couple of things immediately caught my attention when I stumbled across this visit. The visitor was from Nigeria, with the IP address, one that is often involved in e-mail scams and spamming. His/her Internet service provider was Nitel, the principal telecommunications company in Nigeria. What struck me the most was the search string used by this visitor. Did the scammer really think he/she would find the e-mail address of a US citizen, looking for funds on the Internet, using a Yahoo! or AOL e-mail address and on top of that, leaving it on the web for anyone to use? It's like going to Amazon, hoping to find specials on 419 Scam Victims, or having a victim delivered to you on a silver tray. But is a search like this, really that far-fetched?

If you browse through the results of this search, you will find quite a couple of e-mail addresses, lying around for advance fee fraud scammers to use as they please. A couple of interesting theories came to mind when I analysed the search string.

  • 419 scammers are targeting people living in the United States. Why? Perhaps they have a better success rate with Americans;

  • They prefer people using the e-mail services of Yahoo! and AOL. Why? The spam filter of Yahoo! and AOL is not as effective as Gmail's and it is probably easier for scammers to get through to people who use these e-mail services. Also note that the scammer did not look for Hotmail e-mail addresses. According to, some scammers do not like to converse with Hotmail users; and

  • They specifically target people in need of financial assistance. Why? People with severe financial problems are often desperate and will do anything to improve their financial position. 419 scammers exploit this desperation, making it easier to convince these victims.

I understand that it is hard to base solid theories on a single incident, so these are only a couple of possibilities from a personal point of view. 419 scammers send e-mails to many countries, not just America, they send e-mails to Gmail and other e-mail accounts, not just Yahoo! and AOL and they send e-mails in bulk, like a spammer with a shotgun approach, they often have no idea who the recipients would be.

What can we learn through this behaviour? Do not post your personal e-mail address in any public area on the web. Do not reveal your financial status on the web. Scammers will use this to their advantage. If they have your e-mail address in their possession and at the same time know about your financial problems, then they can send you a highly targeted and convincing e-mail, putting them in the right place at the right time. I still think it was wishful thinking by the scammer to do such a narrow search, hoping to find a victim that fits this profile. However, this scammer inadvertently revealed one of their harvesting methods, so lets take the necessary precautions and make it harder for scammers to find new victims.

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, prevention of online fraud, raising awareness about online scams and assisting users in the removal of malicious software.

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