To see what would happen, I played along. From an alternative e-mail account with a phony name that I use to investigate spam, I offered to send “Joy” the money needed to get her home from the United Kingdom. But understanding how stressed she must be at having been “robbed at gunpoint,” I suggested dispatching the rescue loot directly to her hotel to save her a trip to the local Western Union branch.
The scammer, claiming to be Joy, responded twice. The amount I was supposed to send was upped to $1,950. I was given no hotel name but instead the name of a supposed hotel manager and a phone number. A quick Google search showed that the phone number—a listing in England—had been used in this scam before.
A few days later, the authentic Joy realized her e-mail had been hacked, and apologized for the bogus alerts.
What to do about the stranded-friend scam:
* If you receive this or any e-plea for money, don’t respond or click on any attached link. That should keep you, your money and your computer safe. But even a simple e-mail reply to the scammers brings you to their attention and could make you the target of future hassles.
If the stranded story somehow sounds plausible, authenticate it with a phone call to the friend.
* Never use your primary account to answer unsolicited e-mails from strangers. If you do choose to respond, open a free account at such services as Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo.
* Protect your own e-mail account by frequently changing passwords and running virus scans. You may be able to increase malware detection by adding another anti-virus product to your usual regimen; freebies include Avast and Ad-Aware.
* If your e-mail account gets taken over by hackers, your first step is to call your provider, which may have a remedy action plan. If “help me” notices from your address continue to plague your friends, you may want to open a new primary e-mail account.
Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.