Gift card scam
University campuses, including ours, are seeing a recent increase in a particular type of email-based scam, in which criminals impersonate faculty or staff with the goal of tricking their victims into buying gift cards. This type of scam, known as "gift card fraud", is lucrative for criminals, and the lost funds are virtually impossible to recover.
Beware of short messages asking some variation of "Are you available?"
Criminals don't want to waste their time with people who will not fall for their scam. This type of scam typically starts with a short message asking some form of "Are you available" being sent out to a lab, department, or other group of people somehow related to the person being impersonated. The criminals know that whoever replies to this first message is more likely to fall victim to the scam.
Asking for gift cards is a common scam
Be suspicious of anyone asking you to buy gift cards on their behalf. Caltech personnel do not use gift cards to pay staff, clients, or vendors. Gift cards are NEVER needed "urgently". If a colleague says they are in a meeting and can't talk now, wait until you can verify the request in person. Scammers commonly ask their victims to scratch off the film covering the card's PIN numbers and to take pictures of the cards. This is a huge red flag!
Pay attention to the sender and the subject
Scams messages can come from a fake sender address or from a stolen account, so an @caltech.edu sender address does not mean the message is safe. In this particular scam, it is common for criminals to create an email using a free provider such as gmail, and craft it to look like a Caltech user (e.g. email@example.com). The subject lines are often crafted to convey a sense of urgency, and the message usually includes some excuse to avoid talking in person or over the phone, such as "I'm in a meeting right now" with the goal of getting you to fall for the scam before you have a chance to think about it.
Poor spelling and grammar should raise a red flag
While you may encounter legitimate messages with mistakes, and a scam message could be very well written, it's quite common that these kinds of scams are riddled with spelling mistakes and poor grammar.