How flattering. You’re a chemistry prof and you get email from a stranger saying that his daughter needs chemistry lessons.

From: Colvin Hostetter 
Subject: Chemistry Lessons
Date: October 7, 2014 at 7:17:06 PM EDT
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
How are you doing today? My name is Hostetter Colvin. I came across your e-mail while surfing 
online for private lessons for my daughter, Debra. Debra is a 17 years old girl. She is ready 
to learn. I would like the lessons to be at your location. Kindly let me know your policy 
with regard to the fees,cancellations, location and make-up lessons. Also,get back to me with 
your area of specialization and any necessary information you think that might help.
The lessons can start by 16th of October.
Looking forward reading from you.
My best regards,
Mr Hostetter.

Fortunately, even though the sender of this message had taken the time to find what the recipient taught, the UD prof who received this email recognized it as suspicious (undisclosed recipients, some “unusual” English usage, etc.) and did some online research. He found that this kind of email has been used before to set up the old “overpayment with fake cashier’s check” con game.

Our UD prof found that his experience sounded like the experience music teacher Matt Best had after receiving a similar opening gambit. Mr. Best replied to the email and a chain of email began, allegedly negotiating the lessons. Along the way, he became suspicious and did some research of his own, concluding that if he had kept the conversation going, he would have been subject to an attempt at theft:

“[T]he scam continues thusly: the scammer sends a fake cashier’s check for much more than the agreed weekly or monthly amount at which point the scammer asks to be reimbursed for the difference.” (Matt Best, “Beware the Private Lesson Scam!”, Matt Best Music, December 14, 2011.)

Some key points:

  • If you deposit a fraudulent or stolen cashier’s check, money gram, or money order, you could be liable for the entire amount of the transaction.
  • Just because the sender appears to have singled you out based on one of your affiliations or areas of expertise, you still must exercise caution in email. These targeted email attempts to defraud you or steal personal information are called spear phishing, using your public Web presence to target the attack.

This is the first time we’ve seen this particular scam at UD. Although back in 2012, PNC Bank notified us that they were seeing a similar scam that takes advantage of college students’ hunger for part-time work.

Bottom line, use some common sense. Never accept money from unknown persons who want to give you a sum of money to hold then transfer some of it back to them. See email like the message quoted above? Delete it.