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New low for scammers

POSTED February 22, 2011 11:10 p.m.

On Saturday morning, I received an e-mail from my cousin, informing me that he – while on a family trip to London – had been mugged and effectively left for dead.

The situation was understandably dire, he said. The American Embassy was no help, and the hotel was refusing to let him check out until he paid for the room. With his money stolen, this was impossible.

And so he and his family were trapped in England with no passport, no cell phone, no cash, and no credit cards. He had just been allowed to visit the public library and use the free Internet to e-mail me about his plight.

Would I help, he asked, with some money so he could get home?

I was still half-asleep at the time, skimming rapidly through the e-mail to find out what fate had befallen my cousin. I hadn’t even put on my reading glasses yet, so the text was fuzzy at best. It wasn’t the best of times to make a decision, but my cousin was in trouble, right?

I subconsciously reached for my wallet. Then I hesitated. I decided to read the e-mail again, more carefully.

On my second reading, some oddities in my cousin’s message appeared. Punctuation was sporadic. Grammar – especially my cousin’s choice of tenses – was spotty, at best. But these could be chalked up to his fear and confusion, yes?

There were some odd turns of phrase. My cousin said he was “seriously weeping” about his predicament. My cousin isn’t the sort to say that.

And my cousin just started a new job. He’s on crutches recovering from a knee injury. These things didn’t really jive with a surprise trip to London.

But the e-mail was from his address, right? I looked again at the “From:” line.

And then I saw it. In place of a lower-case “L” normally in his e-mail was an upper-case “I” –indistinguishable in most sans-serif fonts.

This whole incident took perhaps five minutes. But it’s the first time I’ve nearly fallen for an online scam. Perhaps because it was the first time I heard of this particular scam.

The so-called phishers are getting smarter, more devious. Rather than tempting us with stories of Nigerian princes and millions which could be ours – if we could just front a few thousand so they can move the funds – they’re starting to prey on our love for our family members.

If my cousin really was stuck in a foreign country, I’d send whatever I could in a heartbeat. I’d assume anyone would do the same.

Now, rather than simply scamming those looking to get rich quick, these con artists are scamming anyone who would rush to the aid of a loved one. Their target audience exploded overnight with this gambit.

Unfortunately, while this scam is new to me, it’s not new by any means.

I called my parents to warn them about the scam – and to get my cousin’s phone number. My mother said she knew it was a fake instantly, both due to the “seriously weeping” line and because my grandparents had received a similar message last winter from a house sitter’s e-mail account. In that instance, my grandfather had his wallet out ready to pay before my grandmother insisted on calling the house sitter who was, indeed, safe at home.

My cousin’s wife, who answered the phone, relayed the story of a friend, whose relatives sent $7,000 to the scammers before the friend could tell them it was a scam.

As far as my cousin knew when I spoke to him, no one had sent any money to his scammers. He said, as far as he could tell, the scammers somehow hacked into his e-mail account and then changed the address – the aforementioned I for L swap – and the password. Presumably so he could not easily regain access to the account.

Thankfully, my cousin realized the e-mail name change and the scammers failed to change his secret question, so he was able to recover the account. But the scammers deleted his entire address book, seemingly so he could not easily contact those who had been propositioned.

Last I spoke with my cousin, he was undergoing the laborious process of reconstructing his address book. It’ll take some time, especially as he used the addresses for both work and personal communication.

I write this column as a reluctant warning, of sorts. We’ve always known not to trust strangers on the Internet, but now it seems we can’t even trust those who we believe to be family members.

It’s sad the scammers have resorted to this tactic. In my cousin’s situation they earned nothing, but cost him hours and hours of work.

Hopefully, if we’re all informed and vigilant, the scammer’s newest trick will fail. They’ll abandon the fruitless plan, making conversation between loved ones safe once again.

Assuming, of course that what they come up with next isn’t worse.

To contact Alex Cantatore, hack into a relative’s e-mail account and e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com with a “seriously weeping” plea for money.

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