The Scam That Pretends to be You

A break in our usual writerly discussions today – I saw a disturbing segment on The Today Show about a scam has the potential to catch us all. Scammers send you an innocent-looking email, you click on a link, and they have instant access to your email and Facebook passwords as you type them. From there, they get to work emailing all your friends from your accounts asking for money. And your friends? Some of them are all too eager to help.

It stands to reason that you shouldn’t click on any link from an unknown email sender, but it bears repeating. Also, if a friend approaches you via email asking for money to get back from England or anywhere, make a quick check to see if that friend isn’t sitting right where you’d expect him or her to be.

One that nearly caught me was the person calling to offer me a free Yellow Pages listing. He wanted to verify my information. Something didn’t seem right, so I begged off. Then a few hours later, another woman with a thick accent called for the same reason. Four calls and two days later and yes, I was sure it was a scam.

Any scams you’re aware of?

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  • Krista October 6, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    There's someone pulling a version of a 419 scam on CL.

    He advertised for a proofreader. I applied. A few days later he contacted me, saying I had been chosen for the job, which he needed completed in two weeks. No problem!

    He also said he was going to pay me upfront. This was a little out of the ordinary, but not that strange. It's happened before, especially when people need projects done fast, as he did.

    Well, the job was to pay $1000. The check I received by UPS was for $3000. Can you guess where this is going? I was supposed to wire $2000 to the "publisher." Yeah, I'll get right on that!

    The scary part was the amount of work that was put into this. Until I received the check, I was totally convinced it was legit. It seems like the scammers are getting smarter all the time.

  • Paula October 6, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    A couple months ago, I kept getting recorded calls saying they had "an important message" for me. Well, for whoever answered the phone, anyway. I figured if it's that important, an actual human being would call. One night, after about ten+ of these calls, I decided to play along and see what it was about. They had a toll-free number for me to call to receive this important message. So I called.

    The woman rattled off an acronym that I don't recall right now. She said my sister's maiden name. (A name she hasn't used since 1991.)
    My sister has medical debt she's working on so I figured it might be connected, although her medical debt was accrued under her married name. When the woman asked for my sister's phone number, and my sister does not live here. (The woman claimed my sister listed my number as a back-up, something my sister says she's never done.) I said I was not at liberty to divulge her current contact information, but said I could pass along a message. She was cagey, so I said, "Is this a collection agency?" She said she couldn't confirm or deny that. So I said goodbye.

    I called my sister with the company name, and we were still wondering A) why her maiden name, B) why they called me, C) what it could be about since her medical debt is all under her current name and address. So she did a little sleuthing online and discovered that company operates a scam where they try to get people to pay off old debts they never actually had! They typically claim it's an unpaid phone bill – given how often some people change phone numbers and carriers, they're probably betting they'll find someone who can't recall when they had which carriers.

    The kicker: A couple years ago another company tried to pull the same scam on my sister, but given her experience with the medical debt collectors, she knows what they can and cannot legally do. She knew they had to provide written documentation of the unpaid debt. She asked them to fax it, but of course they couldn't do that since there was no old unpaid phone bill.

    A week or so later I had an automated call asking for me by name, so I called back. Another debt collector. I immediately called their number and said, "Please tell me why you're calling me, a person who has NEVER missed any bill payments and doesn't have ANY outstanding debt? Then I actually said, firmly, "Please let me underscore that: I have never missed a payment on anything, ever, in my entire life, and I do not have any outstanding debts!"

    That guy asked for my SS#, naturally I refused, saying it's private and confidential information. Then he asked for the last four digits, which I also refused to give. He read off four numbers that are not in my SS#, thank goodness, then asked if I knew someone named Tony with my same last name. I don't. I demanded to be removed from their call list immediately and said if I get even one more call from them I will report them to the BBB and the police.

    Sadly, I think with more people slipping into debt because of the economy, more opportunists are trying to con unsuspecting people out of money they don't owe.

  • Paula October 6, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Ooops – sorry for the typos above. I was changing things around when said sister called.

  • Wendy October 6, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    These stupid scams get more serious as time goes on. That really bothers me that they can now see everything you type on the screen. It's certainly no laughing matter.

    But, about a year ago, I came across a site that was dedicated to humiliating some of those scammers. It was funny how these people could get the scam person to do stupid things, like handwriting part of a book. (I think it was a Harry Potter book)So, it's nice to know that even a scammer can get scammed.

  • Lori October 6, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    I think you're thinking of 401scambaiters, Wendy. LOVE that site! Some people complain it's cruel, but considering who the pranks are being played on, I say fair play to the scam baiters. These are people who make a living of cheating people out of their money. If the scam baiters can dish out some retribution, I'm all for it.

  • Lori October 6, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Paula, we keep getting those calls, too. It's to the point we don't answer any number we don't recognize. Too much!

    Krista, that's freaky! They will try just about anything these days, won't they?

  • Katharine Swan October 6, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    I don't answer any number I don't recognize, either. If it's legitimate and important they can leave a message. Funny how many of them don't.

    But I do get regular email offers to enlarge my penis!

  • Wendy October 6, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    I can't really see how scambaiting is unethical when you look at the whole picture. Those scammers do prey on the trusting.

    People have lost their savings, homes, spouses, and friends; and even worse- their freedom and lives.

    When the authorities can't get the real perpetrators, then guess who they go after. The one that trusted them enough to give them the money.

    I snooped some of the scambaiters sites today and I'm amazed at the tactics they are able to pull off with their unsuspecting scammers. Some of those are definitely entertaining.

  • Lillie Ammann October 7, 2009 at 6:54 am

    A friend and client who is a minister had his e-mail account hacked into. The scammers sent messages to all his friends saying he was on a mission trip to Africa and had been kidnapped and held hostage. "He" asked for money to be wired for his release and begged that the person receiving the message not call his wife because she would fall apart, and he didn't want her to know until he was safely home. I don't know how they got in, very likely he clicked on something as in the video. The scammers changed his password and security questions/answers, and hotmail would not let him back into the account because he couldn't answer the questions correctly! I don't believe any of his friends actually sent money, but changing e-mail addresses and notifying everyone was a big hassle for him.

  • Lori October 7, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Lillie, that's horrifying! I'm so sorry for your friend. It's what that NBC piece highlighted – they go after your friends (and you, if you're the friend of someone whose email has been hacked). And since they're located somewhere other than the U.S., good luck bringing them to justice.

    Wendy, I agree. Is it unethical to trap these people and divert them from stealing for a while? No. It doesn't help all that much, but it's a strong message – we're on to you.

    Katharine, aren't you tempted to write back and complain? "I took those pills and now I'm a man! Damn you people! I'll sue!"

  • Anne Wayman October 7, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    You know, with all the info out there about email scams, and with all the scams we've run into,it amazes me when people who are pretty sophisticated computer users fall for them.

    I don't mean to blame the victim… but why wouldn't someone make a call, if not to the wife (in the case of the minister), to the church office or another friend who knows what's going on?

    If either of my sons, my daughter or even you Lori email me for money I'd call first… at least I sure hope I would.


  • Lori October 7, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    There's the point, Anne. I'd call, too. I'd check to see what the issue is. Even if Lillie's friend was instructed not to call, I would have to see how she is and how long her husband's been out of town. Small talk, but some connection to see if she's okay (and that would've been the clue that he was still around).