I received an e-mail recently that bore the address of a friend. The strange message told me that Judy had been mugged, robbed and left without money in England, and authorities weren’t being any help.
If you found something like that in your Inbox, what would you think?
Fortunately, I quickly realized I’d been hit by a mass e-mail fraud.
Making that leap of faith isn’t easy, though, especially when someone you care about seems to be in danger or distress.
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These are the questions I asked myself. My answers quickly convinced me this was a scam:
• Was I being asked to send money via Western Union, which cannot be traced, revoked or reclaimed?
Yes, $1,300 in a second e-mail.
• Did the e-mailer refer to me by
— “Hi, Kathe” or “Help me, G-ma”?
No, there was no salutation at all. However, some sophisticated hackers do include names, so that’s not a fail-safe.
• But most tellingly, would I really have been the first person that particular friend would try to contact in such a difficult situation?
Ahhhhh, probably not. You see, Judy is my ex-husband’s wife, and ours is a friendship some might consider a bit odd.
Judy and I may not communicate often, but when we do, our conversations are caring, laughter-filled exchanges. We catch up on what’s been happening to each of us since we last touched base. Bottom line: If she had, indeed, been mugged and robbed in the U.K., I definitely would want to help.
However, I also knew Judy most certainly wouldn’t have written the message I received, no matter how frightened or flustered she was. And that’s a fourth question I asked myself:
• Does the e-mail really sound like something she would have written or said?
Not a chance, Charlie. Judy’s grammar, spelling and punctuation would have been far better, she would have phrased things differently, and she never, ever would have closed with “I’m freaked out at the moment ….”
She and Jack were long-distance truckers for decades. Translation: They don’t freak easily. And they definitely wouldn’t admit to being freaked. Trust me.
How to know for sure? Simple. I called her. Fortunately, Judy was home on the farm, and boy, was she ticked off!
The hacker had sent the same e-mail plea to everybody in Judy’s e-mail address book … family, friends, acquaintances, business associates and maybe even the corner druggist, florist and a company she bought socks from five years ago.
Judy was notifying everybody in her address book that she is and had been home … safe, sound and with her pride and wallet intact.
Some concerned friends already had called her or e-mailed to make sure she was OK. She also got vacation bounce-back messages … you know the ones … “I’m not in my office at the moment, but I will return your call as soon as I get back … in 2015.”
I told Judy I would write this column about the attempted fraud, adding that such a report might keep people from falling victim to the slimy e-scam and others like it.
Judy agreed and then notified her own local paper, which, the next day, published a story about the hoax.
She e-mailed me the link to the story, adding that she’d also learned a friend had recently, barely managed to avoid losing thousands of dollars to an awful “grandparent scam.”
That woman received a phone call “from her grandson, — she swore it was his voice — saying he was in jail and needed her to send bail-out money to the tune of over $4,000!” an indignant Judy said.
The grandmother “actually went to Western Union and sent it, then thought afterward maybe she should try to call him. He was home, of course, so she called W.U. and, thankfully, they hadn't sent it yet!”
That’s not as outlandish as it sounds. Would you really recognize the voice of your sobbing niece or cousin begging for help on a bad phone connection?
Judy summed up the fraud-inclined hackers quite well, I thought. “D--n jackasses who work on the elderly — or just on someone's sympathies and emotions!!! Lousy jerks!!!”
NOTE: Thieves have hundreds of fraudulent schemes using phone calls, e-mails and letters, many of which target senior citizens. Please tell your elders to hang up and discuss any such contacts with you before they do anything else, because if it seems too good to be true, it is.
The scammers will want money from you before you get your windfall or trip or whatever ... the “prize” that never arrives or proves to be worthless. As Rob Bryn of the county Sheriff’s office said, “If you think it’s wrong or you have to question it, chances are it’s a scam.”
HERE IS THE TEXT OF THE TWO MESSAGES. MAYBE IT WILL HELP TO KNOW WHAT THIS PARTICULAR SCAM LOOKS LIKE.
The first message said (sic):
“I am so sorry that i did not inform you about my short trip to United Kingdom it came as a result of late preparation. I'm writing this with tears in my eyes, now we wish we never came down here because our journey is now a mess. My family and I came down here to United Kingdom for a short vacation unfortunately we were mugged at the park of the hotel where we stayed,all cash,credit card and cell were stolen off us but luckily for us we still have our passports with us. We've been to the embassy and the Police here but they're not helping issues at all and our flight leaves in less than 3hrs from now but,we're having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the bills.
"I'm freaked out at the moment..."
Just to make sure Judy was OK, I sent a separate e-mail (NOT a reply) to her e-address ... which, by the way, turned out to be one she hasn’t used for a while.
No surprise: I got an almost immediate answer with “the hook.”
This was the second e-mail:
“I'm so glad you replied back, I have nothing left on me right now and I was lucky to have my Life and passport with me it would have been worst if they had made away with my passports. Well, i need a quick favor from you,,I was wondering if you can lend me $1,300, so that i can sort the hotel bills and get a cab to the Airport, you can have it wired to my name via western Union. (The crook inserted the hotel name, code and address here). I'll have to show my passport as ID to pick it up here, you have my word and i can make it up to you, I promise to pay you back as soon as I get back home … As soon as it has been done, kindly get back to me with the Reference confirmation number. I owe you a Lot... I'm freaked out at the moment. Thanks and hope to read from you.”