Have you been the victim of a scare scam or intimidation scam? As you can guess from the name, this type of scam uses frightening or threatening tactics, and preys on the potential victim’s fear.
For website owners, one common example is the search engine optimization or domain name renewal scam, which comes in with threats of expiration if you don’t renew their service immediately. Another is a ransomware scam, which tries to make you believe they have copied your website’s database and will leak its contents if you don’t pay up.
One common scam that hits all types of users, website owners or not, is an email purporting to have hacked your webcam and spotted you do all kinds of naughty things, which they’ll expose online if you don’t send money.
Another example of a scare scam or intimidation scam
Here is an example a client recently received through the contact form on his website.
This is Melanie and I am a professional photographer and illustrator.
I was puzzled, frankly speaking, when I came across my images at your website. If you use a copyrighted image without my consent, you should be aware that you could be sued by the owner.
It’s illicitly to use stolen images and it’s so nasty!
Take a look at this document with the links to my images you used at www.[redacted].com and my earlier publications to get evidence of my copyrights.
Download it now and check this out for yourself:
If you don’t delete the images mentioned in the document above within the next several days, I’ll write a complaint on you to your hosting provider stating that my copyrights have been infringed and I am trying to protect my intellectual property.
And if it doesn’t work, you may be pretty damn sure I am going to report and sue you! And I will not bother myself to let you know of it in advance.”
Now, copyrighted images are real, and you should make sure you use safe sources for any images you use on your website so you don’t fall foul of copyright or intellectual property laws. However, the fact that this email includes a random, unsolicited link to a Google site, asking you to “download” something is a red flag.
The wording is also very strange – the person goes from a cordial “Hello there!” to being “puzzled” and then accusatory, “it’s so nasty!” Why such a change of tone throughout the email?
The use of “without my consent” followed by “sued by the owner” doesn’t make logical sense – isn’t this person claiming to be the owner?
This person’s grammar is also off – see “it’s illicitly to …” for example, or “I will not bother myself.”
What should you do if you receive an intimidating email?
First, stay calm. The scammer is counting on the victim panicking when they receive the intimidating email. Don’t become a victim – stay calm. Even if it turned out to be true that you used a copyrighted image on your site without permission, you would receive a cease and desist letter, not a random email asking you to download so-called “proof.” (Ask me how I know.)
Next, consider the language used in the email. Does it make sense? Is it grammatically correct? Logical issues and grammatical errors are hallmarks of scams.
Think about whether the claim has any merit. If you’re certain of your image sources, in this example, then you can delete the email with no fear. In the webcam example, you know you haven’t been doing anything “naughty” in front of your webcam, so it can only be a hoax.
Try searching the internet using some of the language from the email. If this is a common scam, you’re likely to find blog posts like this one explaining it.
Whatever you do, DO NOT click on any link in an unsolicited email, particularly one that is threatening.
If you’re still not sure whether the email is legitimate or a scam, ask a trusted advisor, like your web developer or IT person.
How else can you protect yourself from scams?
The best way to protect yourself from scams is through education.
- You can see some other common examples of scare or intimidation scams here.
- Learn to recognize the signs of scams – a threatening tone, someone pushing you to take action immediately and without taking the time to think, bad spelling or grammar, and so on.
- Check your skills at recognizing phishing scams.