By Denis Kieft, Barracuda Networks Spam Team
Most computer users have received at least one piece of 491 spam in their email inbox at some time in the past. These poignant pleas for help transferring millions of dollars from (usually) Africa to the United States or Europe actually predate email. They started in the 1990s with scam messages that were sent via postal mail, fax or even Telex. With the advent of the Internet, these scammers took advantage of the low cost and economies of scale that email offered, and their promises of easy money were part of the earliest ‘spam'.
Barracuda Networks has been fighting spam for many years now, and it appears that we've been doing so well that the spammers are rejecting email and reverting back to using faxes and postal mail as they did in days gone by. Recently Barracuda Labs employees have received actual physical letters at their homes, personally addressed, bearing stamps from Tanzania and canceled in Dar es Salaam.
There are reports on various Internet sites that these sorts of letters have been received all over the US in the month of December, following an outbreak of similar faxes in the preceding months.
The letters inside are essentially identical, with the only thing different being the computer generated name of the recipient. They purport to be sent by the infamous Charles Taylor Jr. from a refugee camp in Tanzania.
The truth is, Mr. Taylor is currently serving a 97-year prison term in the United States on torture charges.
These are excellent examples of the more general problem of advance fee fraud, where some large amount of money is offered on the condition that some smaller ‘fee' is sent in advance, usually using the irreversible and untraceable services of Western Union.
In our postal mail examples, the names and addresses appear to have been harvested from online telephone and address sites. The reasonable assumption is that the scammers are attempting to reach an audience that has not been made wary by exposure to 419 emails. While it's easy to suppose that everyone knows enough to be suspicious of these, this might not be a bad time to spread a warning among friends and family – especially those who are not “plugged-in” – to beware of Nigerian Princes bearing gifts.
While Barracuda Networks hasn't yet found a way to filter your USPS inbox, customers using the Barracuda Spam & Virus Firewall are protected from these sorts of emails.