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Hacker targets Ancram clerk and friends

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Crook, probably overseas, hijacks data, scams email contacts

ANCRAM–Town Clerk Monica Cleveland took a few days off last week. At the July Town Board meeting she announced her plans to stay close to home and maybe take some day trips with her family.

That’s why it came as quite a shock to many people who know Mrs. Cleveland when they received an email from her last Friday saying she was in the United Kingdom and in dire need of financial help.

A trip overseas with her husband and two youngsters is not an event Mrs. Cleveland would likely forget to mention, so recipients of the strange email immediately became suspicious that it was some kind of a scam.

“I’m writing this with tears in my eyes, my family and I came down here for a short vacation in Wales, United Kingdom unfortunately we were mugged at the park of the hotel where we lodge, all cash, credit card and cell was stolen from us but luckily for us we still have our passports with us,” the email read.

It went on to say that the embassy and police were of no help; that their flight home was in a couple of hours, but the hotel manager would not let them leave until their bill was paid.

“I’m freaked out at this moment. I need you to help me out,” the message concluded.

The town clerk said in a phone interview this week that she and her family took a trip to Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts that day, departing early in the morning.

Before she left the house, Mrs. Cleveland said she attempted to check her email, a Yahoo account, but when she entered her password, she found it did not work. She said she wasn’t alarmed because she has young children who sometimes “mess around with the computer,” and she figured a wrong key got pressed.

When she attempted to check her Facebook page, it also would not open. She quickly jotted a note to Facebook administrators reporting a problem with her account and asked them to look into it.

While Mrs. Cleveland said she thought “something fishy” was going on, it still didn’t occur to her that it was anything to worry about, and she went off with her family for the day.

It wasn’t until she arrived home Friday night that she understood the seriousness of the situation.

Her home telephone message machine was full of about 20 messages from people who had received the email and had called to find out if she was okay. When people could not reach Mrs. Cleveland, they called or emailed her parents, grandparents, sister and aunts.

The fake email request for money, which had Mrs. Cleveland’s personal email address on the sender line, went out to many people in her personal email and Facebook address books–but not all.

Supervisor Art Bassin did not get the scam email, but he was notified about it and sent out a townwide email to let people know Mrs. Cleveland’s email account had been hacked.

He advised people not to respond to the false message.

But Suzanne Bressler, an Ancram resident and the former clerk to the town’s Planning and Zoning boards, did. Ms. Bressler told The Columbia Paper that she immediately knew the email was from an imposter but was so angered by it that she wrote back in a quest to solicit some information that police might use to arrest the hacker.

In the subsequent email conversation, the hacker tells Ms. Bressler he needs $950 to settle the hotel bill and have enough cash left over to pay for a taxi ride to the airport. The hacker tells Ms. Bressler to wire the money via Western Union to a specific address in the UK.

Ms. Bressler tells the hacker that she will have to drive for two-hours to find a place from which to send the money, but before she can do that she will have to find someone to lend her some cash and that won’t be easy.

The hacker wants to know how long he will have to wait for the money and promises to pay her back. His final message asks, “I wanna know if you got the money.”

Ms. Bressler said she reported the matter to the Copake Police, but had not heard back from them.

She said by email that she knew she risked being hacked herself by responding to the message and let it be known she has no travel plans–just in case.

Livingston State Police Senior Investigator Gary Mazzacano told The Columbia Paper that such computer cases are common and hard to crack. They require subpoenas to get information from the email carriers, and “the carriers are deluged with requests.” Federal agencies will look into these cases only when a certain threshold of monetary loss is reached. He said, State Police look into cases of identity theft “the best we can,” but often information is generated that indicates the hackers are out of the country, where State Police have no jurisdiction.

Noting his own purposeful absence from personal networking sites, the investigator pointed to the recent case of the young women who used information from someone’s Facebook page so they could burglarize a Hillsdale residence.

He said another frequently sent scam email involves a plea from a friend or relative–really a hacker–claiming to have been arrested in another state and being in need of bail money. These scams can be and are run via the Internet from anywhere in the world, Sr. Inv. Mazzacano said.

The State Police Computer Crimes Unit is “overwhelmed” with new cases and has had to add more than 100 investigators to deal with them. Computer seizures and lab analysis of the material stored on computers has become a major component of State Police work, he said.

The investigator’s advice is elementary–never send anybody money without first trying to verify that a request is legitimate, and never give out a Social Security number, bank or credit card account information–“just don’t do it.”

Mrs. Cleveland is still dealing with the havoc the hacker caused. She has had to cancel credit cards, set up a new email account and try to recreate the contacts in her address book.

Though she has never been to Wales, Mrs. Cleveland said, “I have been to hell and back” this week.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com.

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