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E-mail scam attacks user’s friends, family

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Kevin Hoffman
September 27, 2010
— The e-mail said John Eyster was in serious trouble.

While attending a seminar in London, his hotel was robbed, stranding him without money or credit cards. To pay his expenses overseas and return to Wisconsin, he needed cash—quickly.


But Eyster was never in London. In fact, he was home with his wife when he found out someone hacked his e-mail, attempting to swindle thousands of dollars from his friends and family.


“Being hacked, I think, is close to the kind of torture waterboarding is,” Eyster said. “You’re not sure if you’re dead or alive. It goes on because people keep opening their e-mail.”


About 200 people received that message. None of Eyster’s contacts responded by wiring cash to the anonymous author, but it highlights a growing problem in the evolution of Internet crimes.


For some time, hackers have been preying on people’s emotions to extract money or information.


In 2009, the FBI called the “hitmen scam” one of its most common problems. Users receive an anonymous e-mail in which the writer says he was hired to kill them unless they paid a bounty to spare their lives.


Other schemes involve a letter claiming to be from a relative jailed in another country. The author asks for bond money to be wired immediately.


In early July, the FBI warned consumers that the “social engineering scam” was becoming a major issue. Hackers access a user’s e-mail and solicit money from their contacts by telling a story about being stranded in a foreign country.


The sense of urgency sometimes lures victims into falling for the claim and wiring thousands of dollars to the hacker’s account.


Eyster said he was suspicious something had happened when he was unable to log into his e-mail. He tried to contact MSN, but its customer support wasn’t helpful, he said.


Then, he started getting calls from friends asking about the e-mail claiming he was in London. They suspected it wasn’t him, since the letter wasn’t typed in his signature style.


“The all-caps style was like my green pen,” Eyster said. “Everybody needs to be aware and always be suspicious. Ronald Reagan said ‘Trust and verify,’ and I would totally agree with that policy.”


Eyster said he spoke with friends who had the latest scam tried on them a few other times.


Internet crimes are on the rise, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. The agency received 336,655 complaints in 2009 accounting for more than $559 million in losses. That’s up from $265 million in 2008.


BE ON GUARD

The Federal Trade Commission calls “phishing” and “spyware” two of its most problematic scams. It advises Internet users to take several steps to avoid being a victim of fraud:


-- Use anti-virus and anti-spyware protection and update them regularly.


-- Create a strong password that includes numbers and capital letters for online accounts.


-- Make sure the Web browser being used is updated and the browser security is high enough to protect against unauthorized downloads.


-- Watch for hints that spyware has been loaded, including random error messages, constant pop-up ads or sluggish performance.


-- Send phishing e-mails to spam@uce.gov and the organization being impersonated to create awareness.



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