I was surprised by how fast I almost fell for an email pitch from a scammer pretending to be my friend Shaunagh Robbins.
It is embarrassing to admit being so stupid, but I am writing about it in hopes of preventing anyone from being as gullible as I was, especially now when there are new and increasingly clever scams popping up such as the current fake charities pitching for donations to help animal victims of Australia’s wildfires.
What I didn’t know when I almost got sucked in by the scam here was my friend Shaunagh’s email address had been hacked.
The hacker pretending to be Shaunagh said she was traveling and unable to access her computer but as a favor asked me to buy an iTunes gift card she wanted to give her niece for a birthday present.
In her email, the scammer asked me to go to the store to buy $300 worth of iTunes gift cards and email her the pins from the cards and photos of the cards.
She promised to pay me back when she returned home from her trip.
The request seemed reasonable because Shaunagh travels frequently and an iTunes card seemed like the generous kind of gift she might give a close relative.
I was almost ready to drive to Longs to buy the card when the scammer sent me a pushy email saying, “Please let me know how soon this can be done.”
That’s when I finally realized something was wrong because Shaunagh would never be that rude when asking for a favor.
Then I did what I should have done in the first place: called Shaunagh and quickly Googled “iTunes gift cards scams.”
Turns out this is a very common scam and people fall for it because the request is from a friend they want to help.
“It is not like it is coming from the Queen of Nigeria,” said my fellow Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind, who also received the same request from the fraudster pretending to be Shaunagh.
Ian didn’t fall for it because he noticed that Shaunagh’s supposed email address was gmail instead of her own AOL server, and there were too many letters in her name in the address.
But Shaunagh said others almost got tricked like me.
“One of my friends was at the store getting ready to pay the cashier for the iTunes card when she had second thoughts and called me on her cell phone to find out if I really wanted the card,” she said. “It was horrible.”
“The kicker is your money is gone almost instantly.” — Stephen Levins, state Office of Consumer Protection
Shaunagh said the most frustrating part was she was not seeing the emails to which I and others were responding because they were going to the scammer’s invented email address not hers.
When she reported the hack job to AOL, she found out the fraudster was operating somewhere in Germany.
I called the state Office of Consumer Protection to find out if there have been many complaints from people who got bilked out of money in iTunes card schemes.
Executive director Stephen Levins says it happens all the time, but people are so embarrassed by being duped they rarely report it.
“Sometimes after I give a talk to a community group, someone in the audience will sheepishly come up to me after to say that he or one of his relatives fell for a scam but most people feel foolish and just don’t want to talk about it.”
Levins says iTunes gift card scams are a relatively new fraud coinciding with the decline of scammers’ old ploy asking for money to be sent by Western Union or another money transfer provider.
Companies that once routinely wired money now have put in many safeguards, including better training for their employees after the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice targeted Western Union for too easily sending money to criminals.
And to show how clever the scammers can be, after the settlement some crooks sent out emails pretending to be Western Union to try to dupe the unsuspecting victims into giving them personal information the crooks claimed was needed to get their refunds.
Levins says the gift card scam is more insidious than the old requests to wire money because once a gift card is purchased from a store it is almost impossible to trace it.
Scammers don’t need to rely on middlemen to receive wire transfers and initiate the process of laundering money. Instead, they can use online marketplaces to sell the gift cards at discount prices or use the cards themselves to buy Apple products.
“It is out and out theft,” he says. “The kicker is your money is gone almost instantly.”
The lesson here is clear: before you generously hand out money you think is helping a friend or a worthy cause like victims of Australia’s fires, call your friend or carefully research the charity to be sure the request is legitimate.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.