Two men from different parts of the world have lost a total of $340,000 to e-mail scammers. Their stories, which recently transpired in the media, outline the lengths cyber-criminals are willing to go to in order to squeeze cash from their victims.
John Rempel, from Southern Ontario, Canada, was left with a debt of $150,000 to his own family and friends, after he fell victim to inheritance-related scam artists. According to Rempel, everything started in 2007, when he opened an e-mail, which claimed to be from the attorney of one David Rempel, from London, who lost his life during the 2005 London bomb attack.
According to the alleged lawyer, Mr. Rempel did not have any immediate relatives, and he left an inheritance of $12.8 million, which could be claimed by the Canadian. Such e-mails are referred to by the IT security researchers as Nigerian 419 scams, and are rather common occurrences in the daily spam pool.
As it is usually the case with these e-mails, once a potential victim is hooked, the cyber-criminals proceed to create more or less believable scenarios that require various sums of money to be sent to them. Mr. Rempel's story is particularly interesting, because of the real-life social engineering tactics employed by fraudsters to make their scam more credible.
The e-mail 22-year old John Rempel initially received contained a phone number, which he called. Speaking over the phone with the scammers, who were very friendly, was one of the reasons why the Canadian believed the story. “He sounded very happy and said God bless you,” Rempel told The Windsor Star
After agreeing to paying significant amounts of money allegedly required for legal documents, opening an account in a London bank and other things, the scam escalated. A new e-mail from a government department informed him that he had to pay taxes for his inheritance. Rempel borrowed money from his uncle and friends and flew to London, where he met face to face the “attorney” and his associates, and handed them $10,000 in cash.
This particular element outlines the risks the scammers are willing to take, since Mr. Rempel, already being schemed for thousands of dollars, could have shown up to the meeting along with the police. After the London meeting, he really got hooked up and paid more and more, until no one was willing to lend him money any longer. Eventually, after waiting for several hours in a New York airport for his inheritance to arrive, the Canadian and his family called the police.
“If it wasn’t for me, nobody would be in this mess,” John Rempel said, referring to his relatives and friends who lent him the money. “You think things will work out, but it doesn’t. It’s a very bad feeling. I had lots of friends. I never get calls anymore from my friends. You know, a bad reputation,” he told The Windsor Star reporter, with tears in his eyes.
“You have to wonder why no-one cottoned on to the fact that Rempel was being scammed earlier,” Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos notes
, not understanding why “For two years his family and friends appear to have been happy to fund this venture of his without question.” The security researcher points out that “Even a few minutes Googling would have likely thrown up suspicions that not all was what it seemed.”
Another astonishing story is that of Shane Symington, a 32-year-old postal worker from Southsea, Hampshire, UK, who fell victim to a similar social engineering scheme on MySpace, which left him short of £130,000 (over $190,000). In comparison to John Rempel, Mr. Symington did not go on an inheritance hunt, instead he ended up spending the legit inheritance he already had.
In the summer of 2007, the Brit was contacted on MySpace by a Nigerian female user, who he soon became friends with. However, things took a turn for the worse when the woman informed him that her mother was sick and needed an expensive treatment. Symington agreed to assist his online friend with money, and started transferring cash to Nigeria.
The money siphoning operation continued, when the woman claimed that her mother had passed away,and the Englishman covered what he thought was her funeral. When the postman became suspicious, the scammer changed tactics, and, in an interesting twist, sent an e-mail claiming to be one of the FBI
agents who were investigating an international scam.
He was informed that his female friend was actually a Nigerian man lying to several other individuals as well. The agent asked him to cover their expenses for traveling to Nigeria to further investigate the matter, and he agreed, borrowing more money in hope of recovering some of his losses. After realizing that he had been duped for the second time, the Hampshire man contacted the real authorities, who informed him that he most likely would not be able to get his cash back.
“This is a very sad situation, and this man has now parted with a huge sum of money through his own good nature – in trying to help others and then to recover some of what he had lost,” Hampshire detective Jon Knox commented, according to
Graham Cluley, adding that “We do not want anyone else to fall foul of this kind of shocking activity.”
Other stories like these also made headlines in the past. Back in November, the media covered the story
of Janella Spears, a medical nurse from Portland who got tangled up in a similar e-mail based scheme. The woman ended up sending an estimated $400,000 to Nigerian scammers in her quest for a $20 million inheritance. The fake e-mails she received impersonated President Bush, FBI Director Robert Mueller, the President of Nigeria, the Bank of Nigeria and the United Nations.
One might think that such incidents are easily avoidable if people have a little bit of common sense, and, while that could be true, it doesn't change the fact that there are individuals out there who fall victims to these fraud attempts. Scammers send thousands of such e-mails per day, hoping to hook up at least one person, and, as these stories stand to show, this has the potential of earning them significant amounts of money.
“There will always be vulnerable members of our society who will innocently fall for scams perpetrated across the internet,” Graham Cluley notes. “It is essential for all of us to protect these people from their own foolhardiness, maintain vigilance over our loved ones, and intervene if we believe that they are falling victim to an expensive scam,” the researcher stresses.