An international email hacking scam has hit in high political places in Northwest Indiana, and it’s creating a communications nightmare as well as embarrassment for those targeted.
On Wednesday emails purportedly from state Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, state Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. went out to thousands of people asking for financial help to get each of them out of the Philippines.
The three Democratic political figures are on each other’s email contact lists. They noticed the same type of email telling contacts they were stranded or being held for ransom and desperately needed money wired to them.
“They got my password somehow,” McDermott said Wednesday evening.
“I don’t know if they hacked my personal email account or my Facebook account. I’m active on both my Yahoo email and Facebook,” he said. “I have 5,000 friends on Facebook.”
For Lawson and VanDenburgh, the email hacking has left them without any way to communicate via email with the Statehouse, party leadership or constituents.
“I’m furious,” Lawson said Thursday. “Everything is just a mess. I’m aggravated that we rely so heavily on this technology.”
Lawson’s three email addresses have been compromised, and she said can’t use her home computer, laptop or phone.
“All my emails are going to trash. I’m getting everything, including Viagra emails,” Lawson said.
Because she frequently travels overseas, Lawson said even relatives wondered if the email about being stranded in the Philippines might be accurate.
“My brother-in-law called me from California and asked, ‘Are you in Manila?’” she said.
On Thursday, VanDenburgh discovered that her accounts had been hacked again.
The problem started Tuesday, when she clicked on an email supposedly from Yahoo. The email had a message and a link to upgrade services, she said.
As soon as she did that, VanDenburgh said she stopped getting her emails and the 1,000 people on her contact list received an email that she was being held for $2,500 ransom in the Philippines.
“It looks like a regular Yahoo site, but when I received this email today I noticed Yahoo has two exclamation points,” VanDenburgh said, adding that the sender is listed as firstname.lastname@example.org
The representative's legislative assistant discovered the hackers are based in Nigeria, Lawson said.
Although a crime, the hacking scam can’t be prosecuted, Lawson said.
“No one’s going to extradite the people from Nigeria,” she said.
The problem is an international one, extremely common and can’t be prosecuted even if the country of origin is discovered, agreed Hammond Police Chief Brian Miller.
“If you get one of these emails from someone, immediately call friends or loved ones to find out if it’s true,” Miller advised. “Most of the time, if people need help there’s a phone call.”
Next, he said, report the email to the local law enforcement agency.
“In 90 percent of these scams, the sender is in a foreign country,” Miller said.
Earlier this year, an elderly Hammond woman responded to one such email saying her grandson was stranded without money in Canada.
“She sent $3,500 through Western Union. We contacted the Canadian authorities and they said they couldn’t do anything,” the police chief said.
Other scams are perpetrated over the phone, Miller said.
“The caller says you’ve won a prize or gotten an inheritance from some great-uncle in Wales. You will get $292,000, but there is a processing fee you need to pay by wiring $1,700. You’ll never see that money,” he said.