As consumers have become more savvy and caught on to the wide variety of scam emails, thieves have had to adapt and become a lot more crafty. There’s a brand-new type of money scam making its way through email inboxes, and I have to say, it’s pretty ingenious.

The thieves hack into a person’s email account in order to access that person’s contact list. Once they have access to these addresses, they send a mass email to everyone that user has ever contacted electronically. The emails themselves are practically a work of art:

“Dear friends,

Sorry for the mass email, but I’m desperate. My kids and I finally got to take our dream vacation to Paris. Yesterday, we were mugged at gun point and have lost everything. We can’t settle our hotel bill, we’ve lost our airline tickets to return home, and we can’t even get anything to eat. Please help us! If anyone can wire us money, I promise we’ll repay you as soon as we land. Let me know if you can help us get home!

Love, Sally”

Here’s the really interesting part about these emails: Sally is a real person, and you really do know her. The email even originated from the exact same address that you see every time she emails you. You might pause for just a second and think to yourself, “I didn’t know Sally was going to Paris,” but your emotions immediately take over when you envision her kids—Mike, Joe, and Betty, the same kids who play with your kids after school—wandering the streets of Paris and eating out of garbage cans.

It’s not real. First of all, if you call Sally, she’ll let you know that she’s safe at home and her kids have been eating Cheetos all afternoon. They’re safe, and no one needs to wire her any money. If you did fall for it, how would you know it was a scam since the address to wire the money really would be in the city where she claims to be stranded? It’s actually pretty brilliant for heartless thieves.

This scam manifests itself in other ways, too. The live version of it often involves accessing someone’s email accounts (possibly even yours) to discover who you write to the most. When they pick up on a name and address of someone you contact frequently, you get a phone call claiming to be a policeman in a far-flung city, letting you know that your friend Sally has actually been arrested and needs bail money. Of course, they can’t actually let you talk to Sally since she’s being held in a dark, scary, cramped jail cell at that very moment and isn’t allowed to come to the phone.

Text message versions have appeared as well, since it is possible to hack cellular service providers’ data and retrieve not only customers’ cell phone numbers, but also their contact lists.

If you receive an email or text like this and are concerned that it might not be a scam (and that poor Sally is counting on you to return her to US soil), try this out: read it carefully and look for standard US grammar. Are there words that we don’t use, or that we don’t use in that way? For example, in England, certain words like “police” are often capitalized in the middle of sentences, but we don’t do that here. Also, an injured person in England is taken “to hospital” instead of “to THE hospital.” Little inconsistencies can help you decipher the email at least long enough to question it and contact your friend to verify that he’s okay. Finally, ask yourself this: why would your college roommate ask YOU for money, instead of her parents or her in-laws? And how did she get access to a computer in Paris to send this message? Wouldn’t she have asked someone if she could use the phone?

Of course, it would wrong to suggest that a person would NEVER email you for help, but the rule of thumb is that no email requesting money should be blindly followed. Typical forms of communication that need genuine payment are mailed bills from known organizations, or in-person phone calls.

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