Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Baby Boomer Cyber Horror movie: Your Inheritance Is In Nigeria...

Posted by Tom Foremski - May 18, 2009

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Joe Telafici, VP of Operations at McAfee Avert Labs, won't let his mom have a computer. "I've banned her," he says.

It sounds harsh but if you were in Mr Telafici's shoes, running a lab of hundreds of experts fighting a global cyber-crimewave, you'd know how many scams are unleashed daily, and that the elderly are especially vulnerable.

McAfee, showed me a documentary it had commissioned about an unfortunate lady, Janella Spears, who had given more than $400,000 dollars to a sophisticated Nigerian criminal organization.

The documentary was made as part of McAfee's efforts to teach Internet users about the dangers of the online world, especially the social engineering scams, which can't be prevented by running an anti-virus or anti-trojan scan. This is about hacking culture in addition to hacking people's PCs.

McAfee said it had set up a micro-site www.StopHCommerce.com, which will show the documentary in six separate webisodes of about 8 minutes apiece.

The documentary was made by director Seth Gordon and it tells the story of an elderly lady living in Oregon, Janella Spear, who one day opened an email that said a relative of hers had left a $20.5 million fortune and that she should claim it. It's an obvious Nigerian "419" scam that we've all seen, but for Ms Spear, there was something true about it. The scammers had traced her genealogy and seemed to know things about her family that she misinterpreted as being trustworthy.

She became obsessed with trying to claim the $20.5 million, even scamming her husband to sign papers on a first mortgage, then a second mortgage, and running up $200,000 of credit card debt -- all the time believing that she would get the money if she sent the Nigerians more money.

ChrisRoberts.jpg Even when noted computer security expert, Chris Roberts arrived on her doorstep and showed her other Nigerian scam emails, how people were creating fake bank web sites, then white boarding for her the entire scam . . . even then, she was still taking phone calls from the scammers, still believing she could rescue a very bad situation.

She eventually did wise up but at what cost? She was out of money. Her husband wanted to divorce her, her kids were upset with her. At least with a gambling obsession you might hit the jackpot, but here was an example of an obsession with striking it rich that had no possibility of a payoff. She ended up losing all her family's savings, and creating huge debts. And at a time in her life where she could never ever make back those loses.

Mr Roberts had to close down her Yahoo email account, and severely restrict her access to the Internet, plus institute regular monitoring of her online activities. It's too late but it illustrates how decent, well meaning people, can be scammed and end up scamming their families to keep the charade going. She has given name to "Spear phishing" a cyber crime that denotes a hyper-targeted scam trying to fool just one person -- not a million.

This is an extreme case but I'm sure we will see more of this. There are plenty of people who prey on the elderly, from TV preachers to boiler room investment scams -- usually the loses aren't catastrophic. But this type of cyber crime involves dozens of actors and is very sophisticated. And it won't stop until people have gone through all their savings, taken out two mortgages on their homes, and racked up huge credit card debts.

For most baby boomers, this is a nightmare scenario: your mom just sent your inheritance to Nigeria.

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BTW - McAfee says the Nigerian scammers have set up a fake "Help Janella Spears" web site!

Please see:

Woman out $400K to 'Nigerian scam' con artists | KATU.com - Portland, Oregon | News

(It's a ...) Micro World (... after all): Janella Spears is an idiot

Spear Phishing Scams - Targeted Phishing Scams - Microsoft Security

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