I committed e-mail suicide last Friday evening and I have only myself to blame. I had just finished a long day of substitute teaching and was catching up on client work. Fatigue and impatience were settling in quickly when I caught a glimpse of an e-mail subject that really concerned me. "Your Yahoo Account is at risk..."
In so many words, the message was an alert that if I didn't provide my user name and password that I was in jeopardy of the account being closed. I stared like a deer in headlights at the message for more than five minutes, trying to assess whether it was spam. My fingers circled the keys like vulture claws and then, in an instant, I responded to the request, pressed send and went on with my e-mail retrieval.
I do recall wondering why Yahoo would want my password, since every merchant message I've received says, "We'll never ask for your password," but it was too late. I'd done the right thing, I concluded, and had taken my account out of its risk status. Not!
The ringing of the phone early the next morning jolted my wife and me. Our friend Dena from Chicago was calling. "Great to hear from you, Dolly," my wife said. "How is everything?"
The chit chat continued for another five minutes before my wife's shriek nearly sent me and our two neurotic Jack Russell terriers into cardiac arrest. "Oh my God!" my wife said. "Just a second. I'll put Steve on."
For a minute I thought some other Chicago college friend had been diagnosed with a terminal illness or worse. That would have been mild compared to what Dena told me. "So what happened Dena?" I said.
"Wellll," she began, "this morning we opened our e-mails and there was one that came from your e-mail address, but it just didn't sound like you. Let me read it to you. It didn't sound at all like the way you would write, but we just weren't sure."
I am confused right now because am in dilemma. I travelled to London on tour, unfortunately for me I was a victim of a robbery inccident [sic] that occurred [sic] at the hotel where i lounged. I can't make or receive calls rather than to contact you through email because the hotel lines were disconnected by the robbers. Its [sic] painful that all money and cellphone were stolen and i am stranded right now, i write to kindly request from you, to lend me the sum of $1750 to sort my self out, i will surely reimburse when i return back. i need you to send the money via werstern [sic] union money tansfer [sic], below is the details.
Receivers [sic] Names: Steven Gaynes
Receivers [sic] Address: location: 16 Leinster Square, Bayswater, London ,United Kingdom
After sending the money, please do get back to me with the payment information receipt .
My jaw dropped as she wrapped up the e-mail. "Oh my God!" I had an uncomfortable feeling the minute I pressed send on an e-mail I received, supposedly from Yahoo, that my account was at risk. It was asking for my user name and password. It just didn't feel right and now I know why. I've been scammed.
"Worse yet, I have more than 300 contacts on my e-mail address list. I'm sure yours won't be the only call."
Of course, my first move, once I was showered, shaved and dressed, was to contact Yahoo about this self-made disaster. Once that e-mail was gone, I tried accessing my Yahoo account, but found it shuttered for a 24-hour security clearance.
And I received nearly 20 calls that day, including one from my mortgage representative, Debbie, of New Alliance Bank, who was so thoughtful about calling to be sure I was all right and that I wasn't stranded in London. Another friend and colleague, Polly, expressed similar concern and shared that she and her husband had once been victims of mistaken identity while on a cruise.
I used my other e-mail account from America Online to send out 15 blast e-mails to as many folks whose addresses popped up or that I could remember. Thankfully, as I learned over the past week, a large percentage of folks to whom I apologized for the e-mail, never received it. Others commented that they couldn't get over how the scammers had actually used my traditional closing word, "Best" and had second thoughts about whether I really was all right.
Then, of course, there was one of our closest friends, Jordy, who claimed initially that my e-mail came too late and he had already wired $3,000 to the requested address. I was so mortified that I sent him a long apology note saying that I felt worse, because I didn't have that kind of money to repay him.
He let me dangle for another couple of hours and then his wife, my high school friend Marilen, wrote back that Jordy was kidding, while offering a whole line of suggestions to avoid e-mail scams. By then I was beginning to relax and had a good laugh about the whole thing.
This e-mail nightmare reinforced for me how one innocent mistake can cost a person his or her privacy and identity. Couple that with the embarrassment of having clients, networking contacts and other influencers be subjected to a spam e-mail that violates their privacy and trust. The result is not pretty.
Have I learned my lesson? Absolutely. I can only hope, however, with the change in the password for my Yahoo account, that the worst is over.
In sharing my vulnerability with others, I've learned way more about these scammers than I ever want to know. Most can't string together a sentence, but their hacking and spamming can reduce intelligent human beings to blithering idiots with just one doctored e-mail or a damaging worm (virus).
And that's why I wanted to share my story. My own naiveté, caused this, thankfully, short-lived disaster. I can say without reservation that something like this absolutely won't happen again. I am checking all e-mails, especially those allegedly labeled with my Yahoo logo, bank logos and other business-related information, much more carefully. And now, instead of opening them, I simply forward the e-mail straight to spam or an abuse e-mail address.
As a footnote, I would urge anyone -- all of us are vulnerable -- to delete or send to spam any suspicious e-mails, especially ones with cheerful greetings or warnings about accounts at risk. Just opening those will put you at risk for a nightmare like mine or worse.
Steve Gaynes can be reached at email@example.com.