Arthur Frommer

Beware of e-mail scams from abroad

We hear of it happening to friends, and never dream it could one day be directed at ourselves. Several weeks ago, a friend of mine received an e-mail from Europe purporting to describe a misfortune suffered by a colleague on vacation. The colleague, it said, had been robbed of his travel cash and credit cards, and urgently needed $2,000.

My friend immediately rushed to his bank and arranged for an immediate transfer of funds, only to learn several days later that the colleague had never sent this e-mail, never suffered such a theft, never needed such assistance and never received it. A scam artist had somehow learned the names and e-mail addresses that were used to pull off the stunt, and had directed that the transfer of money be made to an account to which he — the scam artist — had access.

How could my friend have been so naive? I smugly wondered. Why hadn't he first made a phone call to get personal confirmation of the need for cash? Why did the well-meaning, good-natured gentleman simply rush to his bank and wire the funds?'

And then, two weeks ago, on my return stay in London after a week in Edinburgh and Scotland, I was the attempted victim of an identical ploy. From a person who had once been an employee at an organization I ran, whose e-mail address I was quite familiar with, came an e-mail addressed to me, which I pulled up on my laptop computer in my hotel room. The message read:

"Hi. I'm writing this with tears in my eyes, I came down here to London, United Kingdom with my family for a short vacation. Unfortunately, we were mugged and robbed 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 lives and passport saved.

"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 5 hours from now (the e-mail was dated "Saturday") but we are having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the bills about ($1,750). Can you help us out? How much can you help with?

"We are freaked out at the moment.

"Signed: Name withheld."

There were several unlikely statements in this message that, fortunately, caused me to doubt it. First, the person in question now lives in Ohio; it would be unlikely she would describe herself as someone who "came down here to London, United Kingdom with my family for a short vacation." A person from Ohio does not "come down here" to London for a short vacation. Moreover, the person in question is an unmarried woman who would normally not write about vacationing with "her family."

And the need for instant action was unnecessary in view of the statement that she would be leaving for her flight in five hours on the Saturday in question; I had not pulled up messages on my computer until Sunday.

So instead of wiring money I sent her an e-mail asking that she confirm these facts, and tell me whether she still needed the money, since by this time she would be back in the U.S. Two days passed and I received no answer. The thief who had attempted the fraud had apparently developed cold feet when he/she realized that I was in London at the time, and would want to pass over the requested payment in person.

And, of course, a few days later I did receive an e-mail from my former employee, reading:

"My computer was hacked. Please disregard that e-mail supposedly coming from me. It took me two days, over $300 in tech support and two sleepless nights to get everything right. I received that e-mail from someone a couple of weeks ago and did nothing. Please change all your passwords before your computers are hacked. Sorry for all the trouble but I don't want you to go through what I just did."

I have since heard of other instances in which a similar scam was attempted: an e-mail to people in the U.S., supposedly from friends traveling abroad, claiming they had just been robbed and urgently needed $2,000. Note that the request is a far more reasonable one than the one appearing in e-mails from Nigeria or the Ivory Coast that so many Americans have received. Those make the absurd claim that a million dollars or so are in an escrow account that can be released if the recipient will cooperate by sending off $25,000. Astonishingly, some Americans have been taken in by such obvious fantasies.

No, the claim of a mishap occurring to a tourist abroad, who needs only one or two thousand dollars, is a far more reasonable one, and one that caused me to e-mail back because of the faint possibility that the need was real. It wasn't.

And the lesson I learned may hopefully enable others to avoid being defrauded, just as a friend of mine was, several weeks ago.