Saturday, November 13, 2010

Beware of Folks Seeking Money Via E-Mail

I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from a former newspaper colleague with whom I’ve corresponded a few times in the past year. I haven’t laid eyes upon him in probably a quarter-century. It went:

I'm writing this with tears in my eyes. I came down here to London, United Kingdom for a short vacation, unfortunately we were robbed at the park of the hotel where we stayed, worse of it was that our bags, cash, credit cards and cell phone were stolen of us at GUN POINT, it's such a crazy experience for us.

We need help flying back home and the authorities are not being 100% supportive but the good thing is that we still have our passports but don't have enough money to get our flight tickets back home and pay for the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave. I'm just gonna have to plead with you to lend me some funds right now, i'll pay back as soon as I get home. We need to sort the hotel bills and get on the next available flight home.

Forgive the run-on sentences and typos. I cut-and-pasted this straight from the e-mail box. Having been the recipient of my share of missives informing me I won $18 million in the Nigerian lottery and could claim the prize if I would just provide my bank account number — and mail a $3,000 check for “handling” to the Deputy Ambassador of Lagos at a post office box in Toronto — I was naturally suspicious.

For one thing, my former colleague would never write a sentence such as the second one. It is actually four sentences connected by commas, a double run-on sentence, if you will. Even if he had been robbed and was destitute, his knowledge of proper grammar hadn’t been stolen. We old-timers have our standards. I won’t knowingly even send a text message with improper punctuation.

Second, if my colleague needed money to get home from London I surely would be way down the list of people he would hit up for a loan. As I said, I haven’t seen the fellow since Reagan was president.

Last, my friend provided no way to contact him except by hitting the “reply” button on my e-mail account — no phone number or where he was staying. Naturally I was loath to hit reply, worried what type of computer sorcery I might be setting loose. Instead I found an older e-mail from my colleague and typed in that address to e-mail him. I told him I figured this was a scam but added the caveat that if he truly needed money to get home I would do what I could.

He replied quickly that many of his old colleagues had gotten the same bogus e-mail. The best thing about it, he said, was that he heard from folks with whom he had lost contact. The worst thing, and I wonder if he has figured this out yet, is his e-mail account has been hacked, because it came from his exact e-mail address.

I cut-and-pasted the original message into Google’s search window. Up popped hundreds of examples of the same scam played on other folks. A number of news articles have appeared both here and in the UK about the scam. The United States embassy in London advises folks to not send money to anyone claiming to be one’s friend in distress. It further points out that any American citizen in London, for example, can go to the embassy for help. No American citizen is ever turned away.

It is upsetting to think folks actually fall for this ploy, boneheaded as it sounds. What most often happens is that people whose accounts are hacked — these are usually Web-based accounts, such as Yahoo or G-mail — often waste hours having to recover their accounts by setting new passwords, talking to tech support, etc. Often, from what I read, they have to get a completely new account.

My fiancé, aka my Beautiful Mystery Companion, and I were talking about hackers the other day. They spend untold hours writing viruses to bollix computer systems for no discernible reason than to do so. Imagine if they used that energy to do good deeds, my BMC said. The world would be a better place.

Probably not going happen, I replied. Like Springsteen sings, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

I wish it wasn’t so.

Originally published in the Hill Country News, Cedar Park, Texas, November 11, 2010.

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