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Shame on me. I almost fell for an email scam. | #emailsecurity | #phishing | #ransomware | #hacking | #aihp


I was feeling a deep ugly sensation, and it took me a while to name it. It turned out to be shame.

It triggered memories from a Catholic boyhood, waiting on line to confess my sins.

Shame was not an emotion I remember feeling as an adult. Embarrassment, guilt, regret: yes, yes, yes. But not shame.

The source was an email scam, a grift that took me down a rabbit hole that almost had me revealing banking information to a stranger. It took a single online search by my daughter to reveal that this was a common trap that had ensnared countless innocents.

Roy Peter Clark
Roy Peter Clark

It worked like this.

My email appeared to be a professional invoice from the Geek Squad and Best Buy, a store from which we had purchased many electronic products, from computers to printers to big screen TVs. The invoice said that we had been charged $413 for our subscription for security software. It had been a couple of years since we hired a reliable techie to come in and clean out and secure our home computers. So maybe this charge was somehow related to that.

It occurred to me that this invoice was for a recurring charge, though it seemed exorbitant (which should have been my first alert). It offered me a chance to cancel the subscription, with a phone number to take action. A very friendly man said that he could walk me through the process of cancelling the subscription. Then, he said, he would turn me over to another department where someone would help me receive my $413 refund. That refund would be delivered to me by check (which would take a long time) or by a wire to my bank.

By this time, I was hooked, and foolishly let him lead me through several steps where I would type in a code designed to seal the deal.

When he turned me over to the refund department, I asked the new speaker to send me a refund via check. He said that was impossible. Now my Spidey sense was tingling. He said to get my money back I had to open my portal to my bank account.

I escaped, just in time.

I don’t think of myself as a gullible person. I am 74 years old, not a digital native, but I know enough about the online world to have almost 15,000 Twitter followers.

I suppose I should confess that about 20 years ago in a hotel lobby in Toronto, I was approached by a man who told me that he had lost his money and his passport, and that he was waiting for credentials from the Irish Embassy. His tale of woe included his trying to figure out where he would spend the night, and how he would get to the airport. My wife scolded me when I told her I gave him enough money to stay at the hotel and for bus fare the next day (and a food stipend!).

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I assured her that my new Irish friend had given me his address and phone number and that he would pay me back for my kindness. Of course, I never heard from him again.

I felt no shame for that incident because I know that while people might see me as naïve, they might recognize a goodhearted intention.

But the computer scam was different. I was ashamed that I had let the team down. That in the digital age I should have by now shifted from skepticism to cynicism, the belief that any message I did not recognized was a potential trap.

A friend in the technology industry put it this way: “Assume you are being lied to.”

I tried to reach my local Best Buy by phone, but that turns out to be hard to do.

When I visited the store in person, I chatted with a manager from the Geek Squad and told her what had happened to me. “Am I the first one to come in with this complaint?” I asked. “How about once a day?” she said, with a degree of sympathy in her eyes. “We can’t help it when other people make believe they are us.”

When I did a bit of searching online, I found several sites that reported on this very scam — describing exactly what happened to me, and how close I came to losing a lot. People like me can never be as technologically clever as these cybercriminals. That’s too fancy a word for them. They’re just crooks.

I don’t know enough to offer a list of tips to protect you from scammers. I hope my cautionary tale will keep you alert. To paraphrase something attributed to Hemingway, in the digital age we all need a built-in shock-proof BS detector to keep us out of trouble.

Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at rclark@poynter.org.

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