Thursday, April 23, 2009

E-mailers, beware — Web scams are clever, common

This is getting out of hand. When I opened this morning's e-mail and sipped my first cup of coffee, here's what I found:

There was a message from a Mrs. Monica Adams of Kuwait. Her husband died recently and left her with $3 million in a London bank. She's had a stroke and is now fighting cancer and needs my help in spending her millions in a "godly" way. She's offered to make me beneficiary of the account so that I can disperse it to charities as I see fit. Bless her terminal little heart.

Moving right along ...

There's a Western Union transfer of $1 million just waiting for me if I call Mr. Andreas Georgetown and claim my funds. Although I've never been out of the Northern Hemisphere, I've somehow been selected to help Bangkok's government track fraudulent money transfers or, as they put it, "This is to help us check-mate all the fraudulent activities going on here in Thailand and Asia at large. You shall be paid bit by bit until your total sum is completely received paid to right at the Counter of Western Union Money Transfer right in your Country." Say what?

I think I also received a similar offer in Italian but that's not my second language so I can't be sure.

Next click revealed a message that initially looked legit. It was someone asking about an item I have listed for sale on eBay. Closer inspection revealed that the e-mail didn't come from but rather Slick, very slick. Had I responded, they would have learned my eBay password and from that juncture there's no telling what damage they could have done.

Then I found where I can order my husband's midlife motorcycle: "I would like to present you a very good company and its Web site. It can offer all kinds of electronic products that you need to be in May, such as laptops, GPS, LCD TVs, cell phones, ps3, MP3 /4, motorcycles etc. You can take some time to have a control? It, there must be something interesting you want to buy."
Just show me where to type in my credit card number.

Then I opened what I initially thought was an e-mail from my gas credit card company, Chevron Oil. Silly me. The e-mail read (the caps, punctuation and spelling are theirs, not mine): "From CHERVON OIL COMPANY we have your e-mail address as a winner in our end of year e-mail ballotting promotion to celebrate the 50th anniversary and we have deposited a certified Bank draft of one millon, United States Dollars this e-mail is to notification to contact the FEDEX COURIER COMPANY IN WEST AFRICA for collection of your winning parcel."

It goes on to instruct me to send $100 ("ONLY one Hundred United States Dollars") as a fee to claim my million.
I even received an e-mail, supposedly from the director of the FBI, reassuring me that if I got any letters from the Bank of Nigeria I should "know that we have taken out time in screening through this project as stipulated on our protocols of operation and have finally confirmed that your contract payment is 100% genuine and hitch free from all facet and of which you have the lawful right to claim your fund without any further delay."

Gee thanks, Director Mueller. That's mighty nice of you.

The clincher came in the form of what purported to be an offer from a Sgt. Jarvis Reeves, who is supposedly deployed with an engineering unit in Iraq. He and his "partners" need my help to move $25 million in oil money out of the country. They can send it "to your house directly or a bank of your choice using diplomatic jet service."

There were more e-mails but at that point I quit reading and started hitting the delete key.

These computer carrion are preying on the desperate, the naive and, certainly, the greedy. I suspect they're making out like the bandits, they are.

An acquaintance fell for the Nigerian scam which promised she would receive millions if she sent a service fee of only a few thousand dollars. That was just the beginning.

She wired thousands of dollars to Nigeria and Spain. Then she was contacted by yet another scammer offering to get her money back for a hefty fee. More money was sent to Jamaica. She wiped out her savings, maxed out her credit cards and then began trying to borrow from family and friends.

Her family even orchestrated an intervention involving an agent from the Department of Homeland Security who tried to convince her that she was dealing with scammers and her money was gone for good.

She still desperately holds on to the hope that if she sends in one more payment, she'll get back all her money and much, much more. It's just pathetic.

If I've learned anything, it's that very few good things in life come easy. Or free. Or uninvited via the Internet. There are lots of robbers along the information superhighway. Lock your doors and hold on to your wallet.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times april 17, 2009

Don't get suckered in by the latest e-hoax

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend received a phone call. When she hung up, it was obvious something was wrong. She said her stepdaughter had called to tell her that there had been a warning on "the news" announcing there was going to be a gang initiation at Wal-Mart that night and three women were going to be shot.

I immediately saw it for what it was: an old urban legend that had been exhumed, brushed off and had life breathed into it yet again. I tried to tell her that but she was adamant. After all it had been on "The News."

OK, let's look at specifics here. What news outlet had made such a vague, irresponsible announcement? My money was on FOX News but that was just the Democrat in me talking. My friend didn't know exactly who carried the breaking story, just "the news." So which Wal-Mart? She didn't know. Best to stay away from all of them.

I again tried to talk reason. If this were true, why would these bloodthirsty gangs make it public knowledge? She said maybe an informant had put out the word. Anyway, it was on "THE NEWS."

That afternoon I heard several other mentions of the bloodbath scheduled for later that evening.

My daughter, Molly, received a text message from a male co-worker with the same warning and the added exhortation to "Text all the women in your address book NOW. This is not a hoax!! It was on THE NEWS!!"

When I arrived home that evening, I logged onto to see what they had to say about this looming threat to public safety.

I could imagine Stephen Gurr interviewing a sheriff's department spokesman to find out just how many gangs were actually going to participate in this scheduled initiation. Harris Blackwood would report on the statewide reaction to the situation and announce prayer vigils at each local church with "First" in its name.

Debbie Gilbert would interview Dr. David Westfall from the health department for tips on what to do about a gunshot wound until the paramedics arrive. The Times editorial board would come down staunchly against gang violence. Again.
Silly me. The story The Times actually ran was by Ashley Fielding and it was headlined, "Officials say text message about gang initiation is a hoax." Well, duh. Told you so.

For years, I've received e-mail warnings, forwarded by well-meaning friends, with dire alerts dealing with gangs who shoot anyone who flashes bright headlights at them, hide underneath cars in parking lots and reach out with knives to slash the ankles of passersby, leave infected needles in coin return slots of pay telephones (where they found the pay phones, I have no idea) and all sorts of other deadly mischief.

There have always been urban legends. One of the oldest is the Cinderella story. It's been traced back to ancient Egypt where it was said the slave girl Rhodopsis was washing clothes when an eagle took her sandal and dropped it at the feet of the Pharoah. After a kingdomwide search, he found her and they eventually married. And of course lived happily ever after.

Retread urban legends continue to make the rounds from time to time but now, with the help of the Internet, they don't just have wings, they have jet propulsion.

Hardly a day goes by that I don't receive messages about a missing child named Ashley Flores (that hoax has been going around since 2006); indignant e-mails about "In God We Trust" being removed from the new $1 coin (it's there, just moved to the edge); dangers of reusing plastic water bottles (overall, they're quite safe); and petitions against giving Social Security benefits to illegal aliens (bunk, total bunk).

A good way to differentiate between a legitimate threat and an urban legend it the Rule of Proximity. If the warning comes from an actual named individual, it may have credence. If it comes from some anonymous source, like the brother of a police official's secretary's grandmother, it's grain of salt time. is an excellent clearinghouse for urban legends as well as a great way to wile away an hour or two.

By the way, did you hear there was a UFO crash in Clermont in 1947? Authorities gathered up the bodies and hushed up the crash, but the remains are still here, cryogenically frozen in the basement of the Northeast Georgia History Center.

Really. It's true. My cousin's neighbor's daughter's babysitter heard it on THE NEWS.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times April 2, 2009