By MELODY JAMESON
SUN CITY CENTER — Question: When should you reject pleas for help from traveling family, friends, neighbors or associates?
Answer: When those cries for assistance drop into your email inbox and you can’t verify the so-called facts involved.
Dubbed by the FBI the “stranded swindle,” this scheme to separate well-meaning Americans from their money today tops the bureau’s lengthy list of contemporary computer cons reviewed on its website.
It’s also struck close to home. Just ask Bob and Cyrille Cobe, well known in Sun City Center for their community leadership activities on several fronts.
The scheme to skin hundreds of the Cobes’ friends and associates began to unfold Friday, July 9, they said this week, although they were completely unaware of it at the time.
Early that evening, a brief email under the subject line “My Flight” appeared in the in boxes of some 500 local and distant computer users named in the Cobes’ address books, including the entire congregation of SCC’s Beth Israel Synagogue, where Bob is current president. The Cobes’ computer-based lists of addressees had been hacked into by persons unknown, the lists pirated in order to set up an internet theft that potentially promised the invisible thieves many thousands of easy dollars.
The message, in Cyrille’s name, apologetically asked those in the Cobe address books for urgent financial help because she had been robbed at gun point of her “bags, cash, and cards and my cell phone…” while on vacation in London, England. “We still have our passports and return tickets but currently having troubles paying off the hotel bills and also getting a cab…” the email cleverly stated. Further, authorities there “were not being 100% supportive,” the message complained.
The plea ended with “Please I need you to loan me some money, will refund you as soon as I’m back home. I promise.” The message, however, did not ask for a specific amount or provide any instructions for conveying it to the seemingly stranded SCC retirees. The thieves relied instead on generous, concerned friends reaching for the “reply” key, asking how they could help and possibly promising the pending arrival of emergency cash.
What actually transpired, as far as is known, is that within an hour that Friday night recorded questions from worried colleagues began to pile up in the Cobes’ telephone voice mail. No, they could only explain initially from the comforts of home, they had not sent the emailed plea, had not made a recent trip to England, certainly were not stranded and absolutely had not been robbed at gun point. It was all pure fiction.
“Cyrille is just fine,” Bob would joke as the Cobes tried to notify everyone, “but, we always can use a few extra dollars.”
Actually though, it was not entertaining. In fact, it was about as amusing as a stolen wallet loaded with identifying information and checkbooks, even though empty of any currency. Cobes soon recognized the seriousness of their targeting, despite the fact they were safe and no one, apparently, was responding to the nefarious email, thereby being ripped off.
Their computer system security had been breached. At least some of their closely held passwords had become the property of crooks, probably off-shore thieves. All of their online business transactions could be exposed to persons unknown but dedicated to stealing – the credit card purchases and payments, routine banking activity, investment transfers, and more.
Within hours, the Cobes were widely reporting the stranded swindle – a con unsuccessful in their case in terms of generating immediate booty but highly successful in potentially purloining valuable assets. They contacted the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office and were directed to the FBI, Cyrille Cobe noted this week. They filed a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.IC3.gov) and notified authorities at gmail.com, their primary email account manager. They scrambled to make more complicated the passwords across their system and to reset filtering parameters. They double checked the security of their accounts with banks and investment counselors, flagging them for ongoing scrutiny.
“What else can we do?” Cyrille Cobe asked rhetorically, recognizing that the hackers who hi jacked their protected information probably will not be identified and likely are beyond the reach of U.S. law. Their foreign location is clearly indicated by the email message wording demonstrating that English is not the thieves’ first language, both Cobes pointed out.
In fact, this is one of the six primary “signs of a scam” underscored by Microsoft on its comprehensive “How to reduce the risk of online fraud” site microsoft.com/protect/fraud/phishping/reduce.aspx. Other signals include generic greetings such as “Dear Customer,” urgings to respond immediately, and requests for personal information. The site also provides advice on handling fraudulent emails and details how to prevent being victimized by a scam.
Nonetheless, “we’re all vulnerable,” Cyrille Cobe summed up, “I don’t think anything is completely secure.”
Yet, there’s also a positive aspect of their situation, Bob Cobe asserted. “We’ve been back in touch with people we haven’t seen in years; because of this we’ve spoken to old friends from Georgia and Texas and Michigan and Rhode Island.”
Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson