Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Hacker alert

When I checked my email this morning, at my writing email account, there was an email there from a friend, who is also a writer. The subject line reading "urgent help needed" had me open it at once. As I read the email, I started to feel confusion then alarm then suspicion and concern.

The email said that my friend was traveling out of her country and was robbed. Her phone and all of her money was stolen. All she had left was the clothes on her back and her passport. And now she was using a laptop provided by a kindly Chinese gentleman to email everyone asking for help. That help came in the form of asking for $2000 to be sent through Western Union so she could fly home and be with her children.

I became suspicious of the email after I noticed that the English was not very good. (My friend is, after all, a PROFESSIONAL writer, with many books under her belt, and an editor! Surely she would be able to put together a sentence in decent English.)

My second reason for suspicion was when I saw the location for the money to be sent to: Nigeria. Right away, "Nigerian scam" went through my head. (Poor Nigeria, for being stigmatized as the homeland of so many scams.)

So instead of replying to the email asking "is this true?" I sent my friend an email to her OTHER email address, asking her if this was indeed what happened to her. (I was kicking myself for not having her phone number, but I might have it written down around here somewhere.) I was worried because she might've been hurt and she could be left stranded somewhere with nothing. I was also concerned that, if this was indeed an email from a hacker, then that meant her Gmail account had been hacked.

Thankfully, my friend responded to my email right away. She was fine, she told me. And, no, that email did NOT come from her. And, on top of this, she was not able to log into her Gmail account. Later, she told me that she contacted Gmail about this, as well as the FBI.

I was so enormously relieved that my friend was okay. I was also relieved to hear that other people on her Gmail contacts list contacted her FIRST before doing anything. They, too, noticed the bad English and also noted that, because she is a writer, it just didn't seem like the kind of email she herself would write.

Nevertheless, she made it an effort to resolve this matter and get control over her email account again. I hope she does. I also pray she hasn't lost anything.

Still, I was worried. All this time, I have assumed that Gmail was top notch in preventing accounts from being hacked. But I guess there isn't anything on the World Wide Web a hacker can't get into, if they try hard enough.

With this in mind, I strengthened my security settings on my Gmail account and changed my password. I'd had that password for over a year and never had anyone hack into my account. Still, you can never be too careful. Don't get comfortable or favorite a password. It's important to get those passwords changed!

I have not received an update from my friend yet on whether or not she was able to finally access her Gmail account but I hope that she can. I hope I will hear from her soon about this. I can imagine she would be devastated, as I would be, if anything is lost. I started to wonder if there's some kind of "back-up" in place to "rescue" emails that hackers delete or encrypt.

This unfortunate situation my friend was in made me feel really uneasy. What if the hacker took my email address and managed to use it in some way? And send that very same email to everybody on my contacts list? What if he hacked into my account despite my best efforts to protect it??? (I was kinda afraid to log out of Gmail today!) If this happened, I didn't think I could bear it if anyone on my contacts list fell for that scam.

I debated sending out a mass email to EVERYBODY on my contact list saying something like "If you get an email from me saying I am out of the country, was robbed and need $2000 to fly home and be with my kids, just know it's not from me but a hacker." But I know there ARE people on my contact list who HATE getting mass emails. And a lot of them might worry that if a hacker gets into my account, he might get into THEIR account, too! What sort of virus got a piggyback ride on the email they just read??

I didn't want to alarm anyone. I didn't want to cause panic. So, instead, I texted a FEW people who are on that contact list. With that same message.

One of the people I texted was my sister-in-law. I was surprised when I got a response back very quickly, because I knew she was at work and probably busy. But when I opened the message, it was using "text language." She usually does not type with "textspeak." (Whatever it's called!!) I got confused and told her who I was and soon enough I realized that the person responding WAS NOT my sister-in-law! It was someone who kept asking things like "who are you?" "what's your name?" "you gonna tell me your name?"

At one point, I thought it was one of my sister-in-law's teenage sons playing a prank on her phone. That's something I am going to find out about.

He or she just kept sending me messages and I had no way to block the messages, either. (Maybe Virgin Mobile should look into making that an option on the phones???) I stopped responding and thought that would be the end of it. But the person kept texting me again and again and again. It was irritating!!

I did tell my husband about this. He read the messages and told me just keep ignoring it. It'll stop eventually.

But it didn't.

Finally, while I was busy working on an article, I had the phone nearby and it went off again. I was really busy, though -- just typing away -- and my husband grabbed the phone before I got to it. He read the message, responded to it then deleted EVERYTHING. I asked him what the message said and he said he didn't know. I asked him what HE said and he said he told whoever that was "wrong number." I have to wonder if that's true. I'm guessing he said something else, because whoever that clown was didn't bother me anymore. Thank goodness! (It's times like this I'm glad I have a husband! LOL)

Later, when I had the chance, I called my sister-in-law to ask her what was up. Had she been joking around with me? Was it one of her boys playing a prank? Had she changed her number? Or had her phone been stolen?

I considered all of these possibilities as the line just rang and rang. Nobody answered, so I sent her a message on Facebook. Hopefully, I will find out what happened!

So today there was a hacker scare and quite possibly my cell phone number getting into the hands of someone who has nothing better to do than taunt others. What a day!


Anonymous said...

That happened to me with a lady I worked with at the school dist. All of a sudden I got an email from her saying she needed money and to deposit it here and blah blah blah but like you say, the english was really bad so I called her and she was shocked. Turned out these people in Nigeria had taken over her email account and using it to get money! Makes you wonder if YOUR email is being used that way. Reminds me its time to go change all the passwords!

Dawn Colclasure said...

Thanks for commenting, Nancy. It's DEFINITELY important to remember to change your passwords. I think I should change the other ones, too. Not just Gmail passwords.

I think if there ever is any doubt about emails from people we know, it's better to check the validity of them first.