Today, we hold certain truths to be self-evident: Never disclose your Social Security number to anyone you do not trust. No one will ever...

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Today, we hold certain truths to be self-evident: Never disclose your Social Security number to anyone you do not trust. No one will ever give you something for nothing, especially someone from overseas who claims to have money to share. The IRS does not generally make errors in our favor; if it does, it will not notify us with an e-mail message.

And, most recently, contract killers do not negotiate with their assignees, especially through a channel that can be easily traced.

After years of scam spam, we should have built up a resistance to this stuff by now. When a letter arrives in our inbox from someone who has been hired to kill us, it can, against our better judgment, come as a shock. That a line follows instructing us to pay a large sum to cancel the contract should provide the tip-off, but even the mandatory logic can’t stop the scary feeling.

That we dismiss many of these messages out of hand has caused the scammers to raise the ante with threats of bodily harm. This can’t help but get our attention.

The Washington Post reported this week about an extortion message promising the recipient audio tapes of conversations between the hit man and someone who wanted the person killed for $15,000 (the amounts change, depending on the relative greed of the scam artist).

One recipient, against her better judgment, said she “began racking [my] brain and thinking ‘who would want to do this?’ ” A normal reaction, even if everything we have learned up to that point tells us the message is ridiculous and impossible.

Most people have the sense to report these messages immediately, but I defy anyone receiving such a message for the first time to remain calm and collected. In the same way, when we received our first “Nigerian” message in 2002, there was a fanciful moment when we wondered whether it could possibly be true.

Likewise, for every subsequent online-extortion attempt. People need to be warned of each scam individually.

Dispassionately, we should be thinking of life as a forest, where mushrooms are often found in our paths. It shouldn’t take a great leap to assume that all of the mushrooms are potentially poisonous and we should never eat them.

Instead, spam is more accurately compared with an adorable little puppy that crosses the path. You pet it, and it bites you. Humans are imperfect and want to believe they are getting something free. So they need to be told that every puppy bites.

This may be a flawed analogy. Resistance is difficult, because each of the dogs is cuter than the last. We know to avoid pit bulls, but the choice isn’t so obvious with a basset hound or a cattle dog.

The scammers know they need to make their deals more attractive, because the victims are getting smarter by the minute. As long as people have feelings, they will always be tempted.

This humanity doesn’t have to be a flaw. You don’t have to feel stupid for wondering, as long as you recognize the point where the dog is about to bite.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at