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Hoax E-Mails Hazardous to Your Financial Health

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Those useless messages clogging your e-mail account don't always come from conmen and greedy strangers. Sometimes they are from friends and family members who send the e-mail equivalent of chain letters - stories and advice and gossip - often from dubious sources. But these e-mail myths and hoaxes can have serious consequences, especially for your money. Joining us to discuss the financial dangers of e-mail hoaxes is Michelle Singletary. She writes the syndicated column The Color of Money. She's DAY TO DAY's regular guest for personal finance matters. Michelle, welcome back.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY reporting:

Thank you. It's good to be here.

CHADWICK: So, what's the distinction you draw between e-mail hoaxes and e-mail financial scams?

SINGLETARY: The scams or spams are obviously intended to get money from you. They're pyramid schemes or Nigerian scams or they're telling there's a bank account, and if you help them out, you get a percentage of the money. These e-mail hoaxes pass along false information. They often scare people, because they're telling you about things that are just not true - missing children, you know, things like that.

CHADWICK: Well, what are the top e-mail hoaxes that are going around now that can affect you financially?

SINGLETARY: Well, one involves Microsoft and AOL. And it's an e-mail that says if you forward these to everybody that you know, you can end up with $200 for every person who responds to it, or $1,000. Basically, saying that Microsoft and AOL are conducting some e-mail tracking system, and encourages you to forward it so that you can get some money back. It's absolutely, unequivocally not true.

There's one that I actually almost believed until I checked it out. That, you know, those hotel card keys that we get that look like credit cards that they store your personal information, and that if you don't protect them or destroy them someone can get a hold of it and use your personal information for identity theft. That, too, is untrue.

CHADWICK: Well, Michelle, I see that these can be bothersome. But really, what is the harm of forwarding these e-mails? What is the financial risk?

SINGLETARY: When you forward these e-mails to your family and friends, that puts them in jeopardy of getting on spam lists. And these lists are often sent out by criminals who are intent on committing identity theft, or trying to get people to participate in pyramid schemes. All kinds of criminal activity. You know, they're looking for good e-mail addresses, and when you massively send this out, it makes people vulnerable to these criminals.

CHADWICK: So, if you get one of these e-mails, what should you do?

SINGLETARY: Don't forward it. I'm tired of receiving them.

CHADWICK: Throw it away.

SINGLETARY: Throw it away. If you're concerned about the information, you think it might be true, there are some Web sites that you can go to. You can check it out at ftc.gov, the Federal Trade Commission. If you get an e-mail that looks like it's a con or a scam, you want to contact your Internet service provider and forward the e-mail to them. You also want to contact the FTC at spam@uce.gov. That's spam@uce.gov.

CHADWICK: All right. We'll put links to those sites at our Web site, npr.org, so people can find them. Michelle Singletary's our regular guest for conversations about personal finance. Her latest book is Your Money and Your Man: How You and Prince Charming Can Spend Well and Live Rich. Michelle, thank you.

SINGLETARY: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: And, dear listeners, if you have personal finance questions for Michelle, we would like to see them. We'll pass them on. Go to npr.org, click on the contact us button, and remember to put Michelle in the subject line. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary is the personal finance guru for NPR’s Day to Day, filing commentaries that can be heard every Tuesday. In conjunction with her work for NPR, Singletary writes the award-winning, syndicated “The Color of Money” column for the Washington Post and is a regular contributor to Howard University's evening news radio program, Insight, on which she discusses personal finance issues.
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