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Why Hackers Want to Be Your Friend

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The Facebook status update got the attention of Bryan Rutberg’s friends right away:


Rutberg’s friends soon received emails with frantic pleas for aid. He was stuck in London after a mugging and desperately needed money to get his family home. Rutberg’s daughter, at home in Seattle with her father, saw the update and ran into the other room asking him what was wrong. He acted swiftly, but not before a well-meaning friend wired $1,200 overseas, lost forever.

The 2009 incident, among the first of its kind, signaled a new wave of friend impersonation tactics used by hackers against unwitting victims. It’s worked, and gotten worse, even since. Hackers steal login information, hijack accounts and reach out to friends when they are most vulnerable – at home, during casual chats, when they think they are chatting with a loved one. Edythe Schumacher of Ohio sent $2,000 to a hacker she thought was her sister, also after a Facebook chat. Criminals have even figured out how to accomplish the same thing without stealing logins. More recently, hackers set up fake parallel accounts and invite a target’s old friends to connect with the new account, setting them up for a later scam.

“Warning to all my Facebook friends: Someone is impersonating me with a nearly-identical profile in an attempt to scam you for money (by trying to friend you and then messaging as me),” wrote a victim of that kind of impersonation recently.

The “friend” scam works for one simple reason: People let down their defenses when talking to folks they are intimate with.  And remember, a criminal only needs to succeed once to make a scam worthwhile.  Rutberg’s imposter sent hundreds of notes to his friends – he hit the jackpot when one, caught unawares, fell for it.

Even folks who would normally be skeptical fell for scams when they appear to come from a friend. That’s why so many effective computer virus attacks use email address books to spread. People open email attachments from friends and co-workers when they wouldn’t otherwise click. Perhaps the most famous and widespread virus of all time, known as the LoveLetter or the ILOVEYOU virus, worked because, well, who doesn’t secretly hope to get a love letter?

The Power of a Trusted Source

Computer security experts talk about a concept called “third-party verification,” that hackers and scammers often employ.  It follows this formula: “Don’t believe me: Believe him!” Victims are much more likely to go along with clicking, or sending money, or doing whatever a criminal asks when a third person endorses the action. This is human nature. It’s why we trust reviews on shopping websites or hotel websites, even if we have no idea who wrote the review.  That’s why review sites are easy for owners to “scam,” by having employees write fake positive reviews.  Criminals do the same: Click on this link to see how effective this supplement is, or read below to see others say how safe this website is.

Third-party verification is even more powerful when it seems to come from a friend. A person who would never think it a good idea to wire money overseas – and it is NEVER a good idea to wire money – will do it when a friend eggs him or her on.

Recently, AOL announced that hackers had broken into its email system and were sending out booby-trapped emails to folks in AOL users’ contact lists. In some ways, the AOL attack is even worse than usual because many folks have long abandoned AOL Mail, so the notes are sent to recipients who feel like they are being contacted by a long-lost friend or associate. In another kind of scam, I recently received a suspicious email from a friend’s account, and when I asked her to verify the note, the criminal wrote back – several times – urging me to click.

In other words, I had a one-on-one dialogue with a hacker pretending to be a friend. That’s a pretty powerful and scary criminal tactic.

In other words, you can’t trust your friends online. You just can’t, even if they appear to be sincere, and in trouble.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Remember that it’s easy to impersonate your friends or associates online, and always treat messages from them the same way you treat messages from a stranger. Specifically, that means NEVER click on a link or attachment you weren’t expecting, even if it comes from your lover. Even if it looks like a love letter.  Always call and verify: “Did this really come from you?”

[Editor’s note: If you’re worried that your data was compromised in an email hacking scam, it’s important to check your credit reports and credit scores. Check your credit reports — which you can get for free annually — for suspicious accounts. You can also monitor your credit scores more frequently to look for signs of identity theft (you can monitor your credit scores for free on Credit.com). If your credit scores drop unexpectedly, that could be a sign of identity theft, and should prompt you to check your credit reports for more information.]

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