Scammers prey on friendship
Animal welfare campaigner Brooke Babington is the latest victim of an online scam in which fraudsters hack e-mail accounts then use them to send messages begging for money to the victim's contacts.
Contacts of the Save HK's Cats and Dogs chairwoman started receiving messages late last month from her account seeking an urgent US$2,500 loan to pay for surgery for a sick relative in Spain.
While the long-running Nigerian bank scam e-mail has become a joke, computer experts and police warn this new variant in which the message comes from a familiar address presents a new danger.
The e-mails usually describe an emergency and ask for a quick response in a bid to reduce the chances of the fraud being exposed before the money is paid.
In Babington's case, fraudsters sent messages saying she was in Madrid, Spain, to see her cousin who needed a life-saving operation that she lacked the money to pay for.
'She's suffering from a critical uterine fibroid and must undergo a hysterectomy surgery to save her life,' the e-mail said. 'The news of her illness arrived to me as an emergency, she is going through a lot of pain at the moment and the doctors have advised that it is necessary that the tumour is operated on soon to avoid any complications.
'I need a loan of $2,500 to make the necessary arrangement. I travelled with little money due to the short time I had to prepare for this trip and never expected things to be the way it is right now.
'If you can help, please let me know. I will check my e-mail every 30 minutes for your reply.'
One friend who replied to the email was asked to deposit US$2,500 into a Western Union account, but called Babington first and found it was a scam. After that several friends contacted her asking 'Are you OK?' and 'Do you need money?'.
'It's so frustrating,' Babington said. 'The problem is that because they changed my password. I can't get in and I can't tell other people to be careful.'
Babington had to create a new e-mail account and sent text messages to as many people as she could, saying: 'No, I am not in Spain. I don't need money. Don't trust or send them money.'
Hong Kong police figures reveal 211 online frauds were reported in the first three months of the year, up 45 per cent on the same period last year. There were 623 reports of online fraud in the whole of 2010, a sharp rise from the 402 in 2009.
Police said it was easier to exploit potential victims with e-mails from people they were familiar with. 'It is likely to be an online phishing e-mail fraud, in which fraudsters may use different excuses to lure people to believe their stories with the ultimate aim to deceive them into paying money,' a spokesman said.
Hong Kong Internet Retailers Association chairman Roger Chan Yiu-kwong warned people not to open attachments in unsolicited e-mails that could contain software that uncovered passwords. He said people should change their passwords every three months, using a combination of letters and numbers.