Gail Collins: Scammer become better spammers

By GAIL COLLINSDecember 27, 2013 

I would like to take time now to thank everyone who sent me holiday messages via the Internet: The wishes of good cheer, the reports of family achievements in the year past, and the multiple requests for my email or bank password.

Possibly that last group was not acting on its own volition. Just last week I got a note from the novelist Erica Jong, asking me for my email password, and another from the historian Carol Berkin, requesting my Bank of America account number. Thanks to my skills as a journalist, I instantly deduced that both were fraudulent.

Also, I had immediate doubts about a message from another prominent author I know, offering to help me turn my computer "into a money-making machine."

I have been feeling pretty darned proud of my own increasing technological sophistication. True, I am still not fully skilled in the operation of our home television, but I blame that on Time Warner Cable, which is responsible for half the problems in our modern world. Someday, we're going to find out it was Time Warner Cable that screwed up the Obamacare website and then I will say that I told you so.

But, on the plus side, I've refrained from responding to a number of people in my address file who suddenly wrote to announce that they were stranded in remote locations and in desperate need of a money transfer. My husband, Dan, got one recently from a woman who begged him to send her money to get back from Japan. He quickly deduced that if the situation had been genuine, she would not be reaching out to the people who adopted her poodle in 2009.

Our sense of being in semi-control may not last long. Finn Brunton, the author of "Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet," says scammers are getting more sophisticated, scrubbing their targets' Facebook pages to pull out details that will make the pleas for help more convincing. (What if the Japan email had said: "Dan - do it for the dog!") In self-protection, Brunton says he's avoided ever getting a Facebook page: "Whenever there's a new privacy scandal I say - being friendless pays off again."

But the holiday spam creativity award goes to a correspondent who said he was "Rainer Neske, Head of Private & Business Clients at Deutsch Bank" who offered to give me around $2.5 million if I would help him drain the account of a dead client. While the scheme is pretty familiar, the letter is in a category all its own when it comes to level of detail. It goes on for pages, and you learn quite a lot about the difficulty the author had in dealing with this demanding client and his shock in discovering said client had died of a heart attack in Cannes. There was also a touching concern about my own reliability. ("I do not particularly know you so I would wait on your response to judge your level of transparency and honesty. ...")

It turns out there really is a Rainer Neske who really is head of Private & Business Clients at Deutsche Bank. However, a spokeswoman for the bank said that he: 1) did not write the letter, 2) knows how to spell Deutsche Bank and 3) does not want to help me get $2.5 million.

Let's hope that he's recovered from the experience. Jong said her encounter with a hacker from hell left her feeling "invaded and helpless" as well as nursing a rather dim view of the Internet in general.

"I fully expect someday I'll go into my pension account and find it empty," she said darkly.

Berkin wants to find the culprit who stole her email identity just so she can bill him/her for the time it took to assure all her friends and relatives: "Yes, I changed my password."

Ah, the passwords. This is the price we pay for living in the 21st century. We have wonder drugs and Skype, but we also have 200 passwords, none of which are supposed to involve names and numbers we would naturally remember. "When you call specialists, they say: 'Change your password every month,' " Jong said. "Then they say: 'Don't store it in your computer.' "

Erica and I are considering a joint venture for the marketing of charm bracelets bearing nothing but little gold passwords.

"Or you could have tattoos all over your body," Berkin said. "Which would appeal to many of the students I've taught."

We can make 2014 the Year of the Illustrated Person. Or the Illustrated Password.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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