Atlantans fall victim to international crime schemes
Sunday, September 07, 2008
This summer, one Atlantan was mugged in London and another detained by hotel security in Nigeria. Both were left starving and alone on foreign streets, without ever leaving the country. This is their story.
Peter Olson plays bass for the local rock band Y-O-U and its nine-piece incarnation, Y-O-U and the Pleaserock Revue. In early May, he was at Indiana State University for his sister-in-law’s graduation when he began getting phone calls from friends wanting to know if he was all right. They had received e-mails from his Yahoo! e-mail address asking for help.
Olson attempted to access his Yahoo! account directly, but was surprised to find himself locked out, with his password changed. He contacted Yahoo! security and, after verifying his identity, regained access to his account. He checked his outgoing mail and found “about 30 separate batches” of a mass e-mail sent to people in his address book chronicling a fictional international emergency that left him on the other side of the Atlantic with no money or shelter and in dire need of assistance.
According to the mass e-mail, “I was in London. I had been mugged and I had been kicked out of my hotel room,” Peter recalls.
Someone had stolen his password and was attempting to scam his friends and family into wiring money to a Western Union location in London.
“I hope you understand how much I need your help,” the scammer pleaded. “I will appreciate whatever you can afford to send to me for now and I promise to pay back.”
The e-mail ended with instructions on where to send the money, and what information the sender would need to include so the imposter could pick it up.
“I think what happened was I got phished,” Olson says. “I had gotten an e-mail about PayPal … [and] I think I clicked on a link that was faulty.”
Olson’s story is far from unique. Such phishing and defrauding is a common strategy for Internet scammers. They send out mass e-mails that appear to come from banks, online retailers or other trusted institutions, requesting that their targets resubmit their personal information for security reasons. Users are fooled into giving up their Social Security and credit card numbers, among other sensitive data.
Atlanta journalist Maynard Eaton has been dealing with the repercussions of exactly such a scam for the past month. His story is strikingly similar to Olson’s. Eaton, a former contributor to The Sunday Paper, is the editor-in-chief of the interactive infotainment Web site Newsmakers Live. A few weeks ago, he began receiving phone calls inquiring about his well-being. He soon discovered that he was locked out of his Gmail account. Meanwhile, people in Eaton’s address book were receiving e-mails from the account that began, “Hello? I am sorry I didn't inform you about my traveling to Africa for a program called ‘Empowering Youth to Fight Racism, HIV/AIDS, Poverty and Lack of Education,’ the program is taking place in three major countries in Africa which is (sic) Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria …”
The e-mail continued: “I am really stranded in Nigeria because I forgot my little bag in the Taxi where my money, passport, documents and other valuable things were kept …”
Because Eaton does indeed write about the issues cited in the e-mail, it seemed almost plausible to Sunday Paper News Editor Stephanie Ramage that he could be stuck penniless in Africa. The Eaton imposter claimed to owe a Nigerian hotel $950 and ended by begging recipients of the e-mail to send $1500 through Western Union or Money Gram.
Ramage, suspicious because the wording didn’t sound like Eaton, nonetheless contacted 5th District Congressman John Lewis’ office just in case Eaton needed some consular help in getting out of Nigeria. A staffer at Lewis’ office suspected Eaton’s e-mail had been compromised, but looked into the matter anyway.
“Everybody I know thought that I was in trouble,” Eaton recalls with frustration in his voice. “One friend of mine was about to go to the bank.”
The mention of the little bag was especially troubling, because Eaton has been known to carry such a bag with him on international trips. But the mention of a bag of valuables seems to be a constant for this scam (the e-mail sent from Peter Olson’s address also mentioned a bag with money and a passport). However, Eaton feared it would confirm to some that the person asking for money was indeed him.
As of this writing, Eaton does not believe anyone he knows sent money to the scammer. However, he can’t be entirely sure because he still has not regained access to his Gmail account. As a journalist, sources and contacts are Eaton’s professional lifeblood. Now, many of those contacts are gone. He is unable to let them know that he is OK, or warn them not to be taken in by this scam. His frustration with the process of recovering his e-mail information rivals the anger and embarrassment he felt when he first discovered that a stranger half a world a way was hitting his friends up for cash under his name.
“Gmail is of no help at all,” Eaton says, describing his attempts to take back his online identity. “You can’t even talk to a person.”
Neither Eaton nor Olson have contacted law enforcement about their encounters. Instead, they persist in trying to resolve the problem through Yahoo! and Gmail, believing that there is little that authorities can do for them.
Special Agent Forrest Pruitt of the Atlanta division of the Secret Service admits that the menace of Internet scammers from beyond U.S. borders can be difficult to combat. “It’s challenging for us to prosecute these types of crimes because they occur outside of our borders,” he says. “We try to prosecute via [cooperation with] other law enforcement agencies.”
In cases like Olson’s and Eaton’s, though, where no money actually changed hands, even the Federal Trade Commission, which generally handles complaints of this sort, would have little recourse. Scams like these, along with foreign lottery schemes and phony court settlements, are so common that they can be difficult to track.
According to Pruitt, the best strategy for combating Web schemes is prevention. He advises Internet users to be extremely wary of anyone asking them to wire money outside of the country. He also reminds people to guard their personal information, and keep their computers secure. Victims of Internet crime, says Pruitt, often have the necessary software to protect themselves, but fail to keep it updated and turned on.
“I can’t stress enough, having up to date spyware, antivirus and firewall software,” he says, “and using them.” FRom: SP The Sunday paper.
*What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.*