Scammers get by with a little help from their 'friends'
The message was from a valued friend, and the news it brought was dire.
He was on holiday with his family in London. And the previous evening, returning to their hotel, they’d been mugged.
“They made away with all our cash, credit cards and cellphones, but thank God we still have our lives and passports,” he wrote. “It’s been a horrible experience.”
He’d gotten no help from the hotel manager. So to contact me he’d used a computer in a nearby library. His plea was waiting when I opened my email at 8 a.m. Kansas City time.
“We reported to the police, but after writing down some statements, that’s the last we heard from them. I need your help. I need you to loan me some money to settle our bills here so we can get home tomorrow.”
He named a substantial figure.
“I’ll repay you as soon as we get back.”
It would be awkward to come up with that sum on short notice. But for someone in such a fix, what else could any decent friend do? I shared the information with my wife, and she agreed.
So putting myself in his place, imagining his distress, I replied immediately.
“What an awful turn of events,” I wrote. “Yes, we’ll help. Tell me how best to get the money to you quickly.”
Only minutes elapsed between my message and his next one.
“Glad you replied,” he emailed. “Lucky I still have my passport to show as ID. Wire it to my name via Western Union Money Transfer. Location: 12 Leigham Hall Parade, London, United Kingdom SW16 1DR.
“Please get back to me with the money transfer control number (MTCN) once you are done with the transfer. Thanks as I await your response.”
I reached for the phone to call Western Union.
But as I was about to dial, my wife came into her flower room, which doubles as my home office.
She’d had a “Blink” moment. The term is taken from the title of a book about the need to pay attention to any sudden intuition that something’s amiss.
“Have you sent it?” she asked.
“Not quite yet.”
“Good. I have a strange feeling about this. Let’s look again.”
And immediately I saw something that, in haste, I’d missed. In the sender’s address of his emails to me, there was an extra letter in his family name. Not once but in each message.
So instead of calling Western Union, I sent off another mail with the subject “Something Odd.”
“Your name is misspelled in your emails,” I wrote. “That raises a red flag. Please reply with answers to the following:
What was the title of your book to which I wrote the foreword?
What was the project you and I considered collaborating on but decided to abandon?
What is your father’s daytime phone number?
Correct replies to these three questions will give me assurance that the communication is in fact from you.”
The response to that was an eruption of semi-literate unpunctuated gibberish that began “omygod are you kidding me” and ended “are you heading to western union now Flight leaves soon.”
The blink moment had spared us.
It turned out, of course, when later I was able to contact my actual friend, that he was safely at home with his family in the western U.S. hadn’t been to London and hadn’t been mugged.
But everyone in his email address list had gotten the same appeal I had.
The scammers in Nigeria or China or Russia or wherever work on percentages, and they know it only takes one fool like me to make their day.
Footnote: On a whim, a couple of days after this near-misadventure, I Googled the address specified in the email plea. It belongs to a London fast-foot restaurant specializing in kebabs.