The Public Eye with Eric Chabrow

Help! An E-mail from a Troubled Friend

Message Looked Real Till a Closer Examination
Help! An E-mail from a Troubled Friend

At first, I thought the e-mail was real, but after a few brief moments, I saw it for what it was: a scam. I received the following message Thursday night with the subject line "Help!!!!"
"I'm writing this with tears in my eyes, my family and I came down here to Wales, United Kingdom 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 today but we're having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the bills..... I need your help financially let me know if you can help. I'm freaked out at the moment."

The message was signed by an ex-colleague. And, it came from what looked like his Yahoo e-mail account.

What made it plausible, at least for a few seconds, was the fact that my adult daughter fell victim to a burglary while traveling in Europe this summer. (She's fine, but had her luggage stolen.) But that plausibility vanished on closer examination of the message. The name of the e-mail account that used my friend's full name was altered with an extra letter thrown in. Also, my former work companion is a professional writer, as well as a man in his 50s who's a take-charge guy, so the anguish voiced in the message didn't sound like something he would write.

This scam may have been around for years, but it's the first time I saw it, and for the briefest moment, I thought it might be true. Fortunately, my wits returned quickly, but the incident made me realize why some people fall for similar scams. Unlike many others that exploit an individual's greed, this one was aimed at the heart.

The e-mail I received is one part of a growing online epidemic of cybercrime. A study released earlier this week by computer security software provider Norton says nearly two-thirds of Internet users worldwide, and almost three quarters in the United States, have fallen victim to cybercrimes, including computer viruses, online credit card fraud and identity theft.

How do victims react? According to the study, 58 percent feel anger, 51 percent annoyance and 40 percent cheated. Nearly 80 percent of respondents don't expect cybercriminals to be brought to justice. In releasing its findings, Norton quoted Joseph LaBrie, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University:

"We accept cybercrime because of a 'learned helplessness.' It's like getting ripped off at a garage - if you don't know enough about cars, you don't argue with the mechanic. People just accept a situation, even if it feels bad."

Will this helplessness grow as criminals seek new ways to scam people, or as we all spend more time online, will we develop a better understanding of the risks, and do more to protect ourselves?

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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