NORMAN — What would you do if you received the following email from a dear friend or family member?
“I’m writing this with tears in my eyes, my family and I came down here to London, England for a short vacation unfortunately we were mugged 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 passports with us.”
“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 3hrs from now but we’re having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won’t let us leave until we settle the bills. Am freaked out at the moment.”
The message goes on to ask that money be sent via Western Union to an office in London.
When my customer (we’ll call her “Mary”) called me about this email, she was definitely freaked out. Mary had spent the morning learning that this message had been sent to everyone in her email address book. She became aware of the situation because the message had also been sent to her husband’s email address and he knew for a fact that she was not in London.
Not only that, her Hotmail email account had been hacked and the password had been changed. Trying to use the “reset password” feature failed also, as the password reset information was being sent to a foreign email address, not the one she had previously established as her backup. Mary is locked out of her own account, and the odds of her regaining access are very, very slim.
To make matters worse, a well-meaning uncle had already fallen for the email scam and had wired $2,500 to the scammers in London. The realist in me says that money is gone forever. Western Union can’t be blamed for what happened. They were hired to wire some money to London and that’s what they did. Thousands of people around the world have also been ripped off by the exact same “I am stranded in London” scam.
Mary was in a dead panic. She was shaking and couldn’t even hold a pen to write down the instructions I was giving her. “How did this happen, Dave? How did my Hotmail account get hacked? What do I do?”
“It’s the ‘what do I do’ part that you need to focus on,” I replied. “There are many different ways that your email account could have been hacked and we could spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened, but that can all wait. Right now, you need to take action. You need to fight back.”
“You need to change all of your financial accounts. You’ve already had one account compromised, which puts all of your other accounts at risk. You need to take action before any more money is stolen.”
“Change all of your passwords; all of them. Email, bank accounts, credit card accounts, investment accounts, eBay, PayPal, Facebook, Amazon, online bill-paying accounts, it doesn’t matter, change them all. Also, don’t use the same password for multiple accounts. If someone gets your Facebook password and it’s the same as your PayPal password, well...”
“Do all these things from a known secure computer, not the one you normally use. For all you know, your regular computer is virus-infected and has a key-logger installed, recording everything you type.”
“Treat the situation as if you are a total identity theft victim. Cancel your credit cards and have new ones issued. Tell your bank to give you a new account number and get a new pin number. Finally, make darn sure that your computer is not virus-infected before you use it online again.”
Later that day, Mary called to tell me about her progress and to ask a few questions. She told me “the lady at the bank” had sort of poo-pooed the idea of needing to change her bank account number. I told her to do it anyway. What did the lady at the bank have to lose in the situation? Nothing but a few moments of her time. What did Mary have to lose? Everything. I guarantee you that the bad guys of the Internet are much wiser in the ways of crime than the sweet lady at the bank.
These measures may seem extreme, but they are the only way you can have any reasonable expectation that you have done your best to protect yourself. It’s a lot easier to change an account number and password than it is to recover stolen money from some goon living overseas. As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Next week: how did Mary’s Hotmail account get hacked?
Dave Moore has been performing computer consulting, repairs, security and networking in Oklahoma since 1984. He also teaches computer safety workshops for public and private organizations. He can be reached at 405-919-9901 or www.davemoorecomputers.com.