Help pack a million meals for struggling seniors on Sept. 11. Volunteer today

Scam Alert

Stranded in London

Be careful. Your friend isn’t really there and wasn’t robbed at gunpoint

MONEY scams & fraud

— Getty Images

When you receive an e-mail from a deposed Nigerian king requesting help with money, you know it’s time to hit the delete button.

But when such a plea comes bearing a familiar name and e-mail address, there’s more incentive to read the message—and maybe even send off some cash. And apparently some people do, making the stranded-friend scam the hottest e-mail hoax of the summer.

In this ruse, you receive an e-mail supposedly from someone you know saying that he or she is stranded abroad (typically in England or Wales) and needs a quick cash loan to return home, typically requested in the form of a Western Union wire transfer.

The usual sob story: I was robbed at gunpoint and lost everything. This scam actually starts weeks or months earlier, with the hacking of someone else’s e-mail account—not yours. The hacking is usually done in one of two ways, says John Kane of the National White Collar Crime Center, which runs the Internet Crime Complaint Center with the FBI.

Scammers can infect an e-mail user’s computer with malware that logs keystrokes, providing the crooks with account user names and passwords. Typically, the malware is installed invisibly when the computer user clicks on an enticing online link.

Another approach scammers use is to distribute “phishing” e-mails—such as information requests purporting to be from your e-mail provider or bank—and collect passwords and other personal data that allow the hacking. They send millions of phishing messages at a time, “so even if their response rate is a fraction of a percent, that’s a lot of potential victims,” says Kane.

Once they have a user name and password, the scammers sign on, and may change the password—with that, they take control of the account and lock the real owner out. Then they send out a stranded-friend plea to you and other people on the account’s contacts list.

This type of swindle was detailed last year by Scam Alert, but recent activity has triggered new warnings this summer from the Internet Crime Complaint Center, the FBI and others.

Even some of us at AARP have been hit. In the past few weeks, one of my colleagues, his daughter and brother-in-law all got “stranded in London” messages from different accounts. The e-mail account of another colleague was taken over by the scammers.

And I just received one, purportedly from an AARP member with whom I exchanged e-mail some time ago, thereby putting my e-mail address in her contacts list.

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts


Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.


The Cheap Life

Jeff Yeager Cheap Life Ultimate Cheapskate AARP YouTube web series save money

Catch the latest episode of The Cheap Life starring Jeff Yeager, AARP's Ultimate Cheapskate. Watch

Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Member Benefits HomeServe

Members can protect their homes with comprehensive repair plans from HomeServe.

AARP Credit card from Chase

Members can get cash back rewards on purchases with the AARP® Credit Card from Chase.

Woman holding smartphone in city, Google map tool

Members can find discounts on the go via the AARP® Member Advantages Offer Finder app.

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! AARP members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.

Rewards for Good

Your Points Balance:

Learn More

Earn points for completing free online activities designed to enrich your life.

Find more ways to earn points

Redeem your points to save on merchandise, travel, and more.

Find more ways to redeem points


Advance your skills. Transform your career.

Explore your learning possibilities.