Hackers target local e-mails to get ‘money to get home’

VERO BEACH – In recent weeks, hackers have targeted at least three local residents’ personal e-mail accounts to gain access to contacts lists so they could e-mail unsuspecting people an urgent, dire request for money to get home from London.

One message line read: “Please – I need your help as soon as possible!!!!” another, “Urgent Reply Needed!!!”

The e-mail went on to describe their plight – stranded on a surprise trip to London for a program or surprise vacation – wallet missing/robbed and mugged, no phone where they could be reached, urgently asking for 950 British pounds (about $1,500) to be wired to a UK address to pay their hotel bills and enable them to return home.

While some of the awkward language suggested this might not be legitimate, a quick check of previous e-mails from the hacked victims showed that the message came from the same e-mail addresses.

Those who have been hacked have since learned to use strong passwords and not keep personal, banking or other sensitive information in web-based e-mail accounts, advice information technology experts have been giving for years.

One victim, long-time Vero Beach psychologist Lynn Williams who is known for her relaxation therapy, discovered she had been hacked when she remembered she hadn’t been able to access her Yahoo e-mail account the previous night.

“When my daughter texted me, ‘You’ve got a virus,’ I knew I had to stop it,” Williams said.

The e-mail sparked concern among her friends and by late morning the next day, a deluge of calls to her office phone and her cell phone had both going into voicemail, lending a modicum of credence to the email plea that she could not be reached by phone.

“I started get a ton of telephone calls en masse,” she says, as she tried to get her workday underway at her office off the 17th Street Causeway. “They were coming from all over the country. And I had an 11 o’clock appointment.”

This email scam, as it turns out, is not a virus. It has been around for at least a year, but seems to be currently on the upsurge. It involves scammers gaining control of your email account by acquiring your password, and then using your account to send emails to every e-mail address on your contact list.

While in this particular case the scammers gained control of Williams’ Yahoo e-mail account, others have just as easily gained access to Google’s Gmail, Microsoft’s Hotmail, AOL or e-mail accounts through other Internet services.

How do they get the username and password? In some cases, people using public computers – such as those at a cybercafé – to access their account via web-based email (webmail) may in fact be providing their log-on information and password mail on an infected computer, which is recording this information and later sending it to the scammer.

In other cases, the victim has received an email – supposedly from their e-mail provider – asking them to confirm e-mail address, password and birthdate with the threat that they would be shut down if they did not provide the information.

Sometimes it’s as simple as using a weak password – something easily guessed by the hacker. One Vero Beach resident, VeroNews.com reporter Debbie Carson, who had a Hotmail account for more than 10 years without changing the password, discovered last weekend that her account had been hacked. She never replied to a Hotmail e-mail asking for the identifying information, nor had she used any public computers.

Her password, however, had been that of her favorite book character at the time – not very original, she said.

A third resident, Kristen Knudson, known to many in local art circles as former owner of the gallery Arts Mojo on U.S. 1, only knew she had a problem when people on her contacts list started calling her.

“I was distraught, I was upset. It was embarrassing,” she said. She couldn’t restore her contacts list.

“I had no way to let 350 people know that that wasn’t me,” Knudson said. “It has affected me tremendously. It’s damaging to my reputation. I have gone into restaurants where people came over to me thinking I had asked them for money, and they were not happy.”

Both Williams and Carson contacted their respective e-mail providers to fix the problem. In a matter of two days, Carson was able to re-access her account and send a message to everyone on her list that the e-mail had been a hoax. Her account appeared to be untouched – aside from a half-dozen undeliverable e-mails that had been returned.

Williams wasn’t as lucky. By the time she was able to access her account, her contacts list containing hundreds of addresses had been wiped clean. She had no way of quickly notifying anyone about the scam.

“How could they get into my account to change the password and the questions?” she asked rhetorically – because the hacker did precisely that. “Yahoo didn’t know. I asked, ‘How do I know that won’t happen again?’ And, he didn’t know that either. Now, I’ve switched to gmail.”

“I had enough sense not to have my Visa and Schwab accounts under the same password,” Williams added. “But shame on me for using the same password any other place.”

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If you are hacked:

Disconnect immediately. Unplug the network cable, phone, or cable line from your machine. This can prevent data from being leaked back to the attacker. Bots may also use your computer as a zombie in a larger, coordinated attack. Disconnecting your network connection is a sure-fire way to put a stop to the immediate damage.

If you are at work, contact your Information Technology department. Scan your computer with an up-to-date antivirus program such as Norton AntiVirus or Norton Internet Security (a complete security software suite). A program with antivirus & antispyware capabilities can detect and often remove threats that would otherwise remain hidden on your machine.

Back up your critical information. Sensitive data may be leaked and it also may be inadvertently destroyed or lost during the clean-up effort. If you have back-up software installed, make a copy of your valuable files such as your photos, videos and other personal or work files to a back-up hard drive or removable media, such as a CD or DVD.

Consider going back to ground zero by re-installing the operating system of your computer (e.g. Microsoft Windows) or using back-up software. The worst attacks are sophisticated enough to burrow deep within your system in an attempt to hide from your security software using “rootkit” techniques. Sometimes the best course of action is to return to a pre-infection state using a program such as Norton Ghost

Online Fraud

Close affected accounts immediately. In the best-case scenario, you will be able to shut-down or change any credit card, bank or other online service accounts before they can be leveraged by the thief. Err on the side of safety: a little more trouble taken up front to freeze or change accounts can save much more effort later disputing fraudulent purchases by a cybercriminal.

Set up a fraud alert with the 3 national consumer reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion). Contacting just one of the three companies will set up the alert for all of them. The fraud alert will tell creditors to contact you directly before making any changes to existing accounts to trying to open up new ones. File a police report. Ideally this would be done in the area where the crime took place. While this may or may not provide the police enough information to bring the criminal to justice, you can use a copy of the police report or the report number as evidence with your creditors in case they ask for proof. You may never need it, but it may make all the difference later.

Contact government agencies. If your driver’s license or social security number has been stolen, you will need to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Association respectively. Additionally, you should report your identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission whom maintains an identity theft database used by law enforcement agencies for investigations.

Watch your credit reports closely. Keeping a sharp eye on your accounts from all three credit reporting agencies is essential as information may not be the same across all three. Some of the credit reporting agencies offer all-in-one reports or just-in-time alerting services for a fee. Depending on the level of potential impact and your concern, it may be worth the quick turnaround time and easy viewing to pay for these additional services. Remember that it may take some time before all of the fraudulent activity to appear on your credit reports.

Look for signs of identity theft. It’s natural to have your guard up after having your identity stolen. During this time, be on the look out for odd things in the mail, including credit cards you did not request and bills that you normally receive which have gone missing. Being contacted by vendors regarding accounts you are unaware of, or even worse, by debt collectors for purchases someone else made, are clear signs of lingering identity theft problems.

Source: FBI Cybercrimes, Federal Trade Commission

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Sample Hoax E-mail

I’m writing this with tears in my eyes,we came down here to London,England for a short vacation and i was mugged at gun  point last night,at the park of the hotel where we lodged all cash,creditcards and cell were stolen off me, thank God  we have our life and passport. I’ve been to the embassy and the Police here but they’re not helping issues at all,they asked us to wait for 3weeks  but we can’t wait till then. our flight leaves in less than 5hrs from now and we are having problems settling the hotel bills. The hotel manager won’t let us leave until we settle the hotel bills.you can speak with him through this number +447024024758,we are freaked out at the moment you can wire the money to me through westernunion all you need is Name on my passport and location below

Namel:Debbie Girard Location:22 Kentish Town Road London NW5 2TJ United Kingdom Amount: $1,450 I’ll def refund your cash as soon as i get home.

Provided by VeroNews.com reporter Debbie Carson

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