If Amazon emails you offering free money, definitely question its legitimacy and check for signs of phishing.

By Claudia Fisher
September 21, 2018

In all of our dreams, a no-strings-attached credit to Amazon would appear in our inboxes to be used on any product our hearts so desired. But usually, fantasies of free money falling into our laps are just that—fantasies. And if you ever think you're in that exact dream situation, you should absolutely question the motives of whoever is on the other side of said "free money" because it's most likely a scam.

Recently, several of my co-workers reported receiving an apologetic email from Amazon (or what appeared to be) conceding fault for a Lightening Deal that never went through. Each person who got this message was offered a promotional credit of exactly $49.82 to make up for the snafu.

The message read, "We're contacting you because we recently learned that you claimed a Lightening Deal, but were unable to check out due to a website issue."

While the email looked fairly authentic, with a subject line "A Message from Amazon Customer Service" and the company's easily identifiable yellow arrow branded above the body of the message, there were some—slightly more subtle—signs of phishing.

For one, the email's sender is "customer-service@amazonweb.com." All emails Amazon sends are from an address that ends with "@amazon.com."

The second questionable bit of the email is that the Amazon logo is missing a key part: the name Amazon itself. If you've ever received a genuine email from the online retailer, you've probably just skimmed through to find the important tidbits, like when to expect your order. What you might have glossed over is that the logo atop looks like this:

Amazon logo

The logo on the phishing email my coworkers got, on the other hand, looked like this:

Fake amazon logo from phishing email

So that's two demerits before we even get to the copy. The first noticeable problem with the content of the email was the purported reason behind the credit in the first place. My co-workers who received the email had not, in fact, recently purchased a Lighting Deal on Amazon's site. Ok, so that's a red flag for sure—claims you did something that you know you didn't should give you pause. As Amazon itself points out, suspicious emails from scammers claiming to be the company will often include an order confirmation for something you did not actually order. 

Another weird element in the language is a caveat toward the end. With an asterisk, the fine print reads "This promotional credit does not apply to digital purchases." I'm sorry, what? How else should I be using Amazon other than digitally? Ok, weird.

Here is the phishing email in full:

Amazon Phishing Email Message

Amazon Phishing Email Message

Once your suspicions are raised that you have received a fake offer that's most likely a scam, you still may be tempted to click the links just, you know, to be 100% certain—I get it; no one wants to miss out on free money. The thing about phishing emails, though, is that they're set up to do you harm, and clicking any links included in the message can come with consequences. In some cases, the links lead to websites that look similar to the site they're posing as—but the URL will be slightly off—and you'll be prompted to enter personal information, like credit card details, usernames, and passwords.

While those scams can be a little more transparent once you vet the webpages, other links in phishing emails install malware (which stands for malicious software) onto your computer immediately upon your click. There are several types of malware phishing emails can employ, like giving your computer a virus of some sort to destroy data on or otherwise damage your device. Another scary kind of malware is called screen-locking ransomware—used on Android and Windows devices—in which your screen locks against you and wrongfully accuses you of having illegal content. The goal of this malware is to scare people into paying a fee to regain access to their computers or phones.

The important thing to remember when you get an unprompted email that appears to be from a legitimate source is to check for signs of phishing. As phishing.org advises, "think before you click." In my coworkers' case, there were two notable opportunities to think "is this real?" even if they missed the wonky sender address and incorrect Amazon logo. Obviously, it's more fun to believe we're being given credits and winning money, which makes it easy to reason against your better judgment in the face of phishing emails. In cases like these, though, you should think of the principal of Occam's razor, which aptly reminds us: The simplest answer is usually the right one. And the simplest answer in the case of a mysterious email from amazonweb.com apologizing for something that never happened is: You're being scammed.

For more on steering clear of phishing, phishing.org has nine additional strategies.