published Sunday, October 10th, 2010

E-mail hoax leaves a mess to clean up


by Jan Galletta

My latest computer hassle has left me railing against random hackers and reeling in embarrassment over my own electronic ignorance.

What happened, I think, is that someone sneaked into my e-mail account, changed my password so I couldn’t sign on and apparently sent a phony request for funds to anyone I’d written in the three years that I’ve owned my laptop.

The bogus message had my family and me stranded at a European airport after a mugger had stolen our cash and credit cards, but not our passports. Sympathetic recipients who responded with offers of economic aid to help get us home were evidently then given instructions for making financial transfers.

We learned about the purloined password when some friends called my husband, Fred, to learn my whereabouts, one of whom even asked if the make-believe mugger had had a handgun. Other callers who recognized the hoax (either because my menfolk are too big to be likely mugging targets or because of the fake money plea’s deplorable grammar) shared their own cyber-swiper horror stories.

Fred spent two full frustrating days trying to clean up the digital mess before contacting our nephew in Florida, who works as a troubleshooter for a national online communications concern. He steered Fred to an anti-virus program that first called for Fred to undo all his earlier cleanup efforts.

Most distressing for me was the fact that I really hadn’t a handle on what the computer intruder had done. For all I knew, he or she had committed horrible crimes in my name, had commandeered my life savings or had sold me as a slave to mean masters who’d be coming to collect me at any minute.

I fretted over the e-mail trespasser’s choice of such a clearly unworthy target.

I don’t do much digital activity; my life is so boring that it barely provides fodder for this monthly column, much less for the daily (often hourly) bulletins that some of Fred’s Facebook buddies post. Why ever would anyone want to yawn his or her way through my e-mail correspondence?

Also, because I have no real job and basically sponge off my relatives for money, there are no online commercial transactions or banking records to pillage. A potential cyber thief would find the monetary pickings mighty slim, in my case.

Fred said the theft undoubtedly wasn’t personal, that I had probably just opened an infected attachment or something. Still, I felt somewhat violated, experiencing the creepy sensation I did years ago when someone broke into our car in Atlanta during a Christmas shopping trip.

Our luggage and all the presents we’d purchased were stolen, yet what I minded most was the theft of a camera with a roll of exposed, but undeveloped, film that included the last pictures taken of my father, who’d died not long before. It was hard not to take that theft as a personal affront.

What went missing this time around was several months’ worth of e-mails that I’d saved for various reasons. Among them was a mail-order source a friend had sent me for purchasing merchandise from my all-time favorite movie, “The Princess Bride.”

The website’s offerings included a T-shirt that I wanted to buy, emblazoned with a convention-style name badge that read, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya,” evoking some of actor Mandy Patinkin’s more memorable lines in the film.

I really hope I can relocate that website, now that I’ve been robbed of my former e-mail persona and need a new identity of sorts. Maybe a would-be web hacker might be deterred by a computer user who wears clothing that warns, “Prepare to die.”

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