The Email Scam That Nearly Worked On Me

It’s easy for scammers to impersonate real companies — because real companies often behave like scam artists

Clive Thompson

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Illustrated cartoon image of a hacker in a hoodie at computer, surrounded by images of broken locks and broken credit cards
via Ayesha Raheem at Pixabay

Two days ago I received an email that appeared to be from Norton, the makers of antivirus software.

The email said they’d just charged me a ton of money on autopay. A screenshot …

Screenshot of spam/fraud email, saying: “Invoice number: PHAX51676PTP; Product details: Norton Protection; Order Summary,, Invoice number: PHAX51676PTP; Start date: 20–05–2022; Finish date: 1 year from Issue Date; Payment mode: Auto debit from account; Status: completed; If you wish not to continue and ask for a REFUND then please feel free to call our Billing Department as soon as possible. You can reach us on: +1-(888)-(413)-1307

As you can probably suspect, it was a scam. If you call that number, you get connected to a call-center where they pretend to be Norton; they explain they’d be happy to issue a refund … if you give them your bank info or credit card details. Then they use your bank info to ring up charges, or flat-out pilfer money. Snopes has a good writeup on this type of digital highwayman activity.

I pretty quickly figured out, all on my own, that it was a scam. One clue was that it came from a gmail address. Another was the open invocation to “call us for a refund” — with REFUND in big bold letters — and the oddly formatted phone number. It is dangerous to try and detect scams merely by looking for poor formatting, because scammers are getting better at cribbing the HTML/CSS of real companies; scams increasingly look graphically indistinguishable from official corporate communications.

But in this case, these “tells” were amateurish enough that it pinged my radar. I googled the phone number, quickly found the Snopes article, and the jig was up. A scam!

A pile of triangles that look like traffic signs — thick red border, with a white middle with a black SCAM written on it
via Geralt at Pixabay

The thing is, for about five minutes I was seriously worried that Norton really had billed me for $433 worth of services I hadn’t ordered. I was low-key flipping out.

Why?

Because getting this sort of email is quite realistic. Plenty of companies do this all the time. They auto-charge us for stuff — even if we’ve told them to stop services.

I used to use Norton years ago, on an older Windows computer. I unsubscribed from the service…

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net