Email theft frightens woman's friends

March 25, 2009 5:44:47 PM PDT
If you've gotten an email from a Houston woman claiming to be trapped in Nigeria who needs hundreds of dollars to get back home, you are not alone.The email started circulating last weekend and lots of people have come close to wiring cash because the person is real, but it turns out she's nowhere near Nigeria

Angela Dispensa wants everyone to know she is safe, sound and more importantly not in Africa.

"I am here in Houston, Texas and I am fine," she verified in person to us.

You can forgive Dispensa's friends and business contacts for not knowing her whereabouts because nearly 600 of them recently got an email from her Hotmail account stating something quite different.

"I am presently in Nigeria and all my money and traveling documents were stolen from my hotel during a robbery incident," she read to us.

The email asks that $1,200 be wired to Nigeria so Dispensa can come home. But Dispensa never sent it. The email started circulating after someone hacked into her Hotmail account.

"Friday night I received an email from what I thought was Hotmail asking me to verify my user name, password, birthday and country that I lived in," she recalled. "Not thinking clearly I responded to that email with the information."

Dispensa did not know it at the time, but she responded to a phishing scam. That's when a scammer uses what appears to be a real company logo to trick you into handing over a password. In our victim's case, hackers took over her email account and have full access to her contact list and that lead to the plea for money. Now she's getting a flood of phone calls from worried friends.

To head off the concern, Dispensa has changed her voice mail message. She has made other changes too.

"I did contact local police to file a police report and I did close out my bank accounts," she told us.

All of that because Dispensa responded to what she thought was a real inquiry from a real company.

"If you have given your name and date of birth, a lot can be done with that, your identity can be stolen," warned Deana Turner with the Houston Better Business Bureau.

Another problem was contacting a live person at Hotmail. The email service has no direct phone number so contacts have to be sent by email. We contacted Microsoft, the company that owns Hotmail, and representatives are looking into contacting her directly.

You can report similar problems by calling 1-866-PCSAFETY. Other than not answering these e-mails, what can be done to protect yourself?

A couple of things:
- Back up your e-mail contact list, so you can send out your own warning.
- Also, watch your passwords. A lot of people use just one or two passwords for everything and you can bet those who hacked this account then went online trying to hack into banks accounts.

That did not happen in this case, but it certainly could have.

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