Can this trip be saved? Email scam cost me $6,600 — can you get it back?

Think you’ll never fall for one of those email scams — you know, the ones where someone hijacks a friend’s Gmail account and pretends to be a traveler in distress?

Well, if you think you’re too smart to become a victim, think again. Carlo has a doctorate in math, and I’ve agreed to use only his first name, because he lost four months’ salary just before Christmas to this electronic swindle.

“I wouldn’t like to be publicly known as a dupe in my school,” he says.

Carlo wants to know: Is the money gone forever? Or can I help him recover some of it?

I’m fascinated by how this crime unfolded. For the first time ever, a victim has allowed me to republish the entire correspondence between himself and the perpetrator, in its entirety. (One thing to note is that English isn’t Carlo’s first language.)

The ruse started when a respected mathematician’s email account was taken over by thieves. They sent the following email.

Apologies for having to reach out to you like this, but I made a quick trip to London,United Kingdom and had my bag stolen from me with my passport and credit cards in it.

The embassy is willing to help by authorizing me to fly without my passport, I just have to pay for a ticket and settle Hotel bills. Unfortunately, I can’t have access to funds without my credit card, I’ve made contact with my bank but they need more time to come up with a new one.

I was thinking of asking you to lend me some quick funds that I can give back as soon as I get in. I really need to be on the next available flight.

Here’s how Carlo replied:

I am honored to be able to help you. Just let me know how I can send you money and how much money.

I think that the easiest way for me is to give you the number of my credit card.

Tomorrow morning early I will ring you up. Why do you need to catch the first fly back?

Couldn’t you just enjoy the rest of your stay in London and settle everything when you are back ?

Please rely on my help, I’ll do everything I can.

So Carlo was willing to believe this came from the professor, and eager to help. That was his first mistake.

The “Professor” replies:

Thanks, please I don’t know how much you can help me with but I need to borrow about $2,300 or whatever you can help me with, I will pay back as soon as I get back home.

Can you make western union transfer to me, please let me know if possible so I can forward you details for transfer. Thanks.

Ah, the demand for cash. That should have been another tip-off.

Yes, I can send you that amount of money by Western Union. I’ll do it tomorrow as soon as my bank and offices open. I thought you were sleeping. I’ll now try to ring you up.

Now things start to get interesting:

Professor: Thanks, please I don’t know how much you can help me with but I need to borrow about $2,300 or whatever you can help me with.

Carlo: The most important thing is that you are safe and calm. I can lend you even more than that, as much as you need. Just let me know. How much money do you need ?

Professor: 2500 $ is OK.

Carlo wires him $2,500 the next day, which happens to be the per-day limit imposed by Western Union. So we have several warning flags that have gone up already: the suspicious email, the demand for cash, and the per-day limit for wiring money. Bear in mind that Carlo is teaching in Italy and the Professor is supposedly traveling in England.

Carlo: Please, acknowledge reading this message.

Professor: Thanks for everything, am so grateful, will keep you posted on my itinerary. Thanks.

Carlo: OK, if you need more money and find another way, like moneygram or whatever, just let me know.

The criminals can’t pass up an offer like that. So they they send the following note:

I got the money and thanks very much to you, I’m just back from the airport, I secured an available flight for tomorrow midnight costing $1,800 and they said I need to have a Basic Traveling Allowance (BTA) of $1,650 on me, can you believe these people?

Anyway I was expecting another $2000 from another friend of mine. since I didn’t wanna put everything on you but he’s postponing it till Wednesday next week and that’s just too much of a waste of time for me, so i was thinking if i could just ask you to lend me another $2800.

I promise to get it back you as soon as I arrive tomorrow. Please let me know if possible whatever you can raise. Thanks for everything.

And you know what happens next, don’t you? Carlo sends him more cash after the “Professor” tells him that his brother is in bed with a fever and can’t help him.

When he sent the equivalent of $4,100 more, and gets no reply from the “Professor,” Carlo starts to worry.

I am starting fearing a swindle. Confirm it’s you. Write me something just you can know.

And here’s where it all ends. Well, almost. Another professor at an Ivy League university apparently also fell for it. These are educated men.

As I explained earlier this year, this scam is becoming common. It’s hard to tell which is more challenging to the fraudsters: hacking into your email account or persuading one of your friends to send you money.

I’ve reviewed Western Union’s terms and conditions, and Carlo doesn’t have much of a case for a refund. That money’s gone. He’s filed a report with Italian police, but the perpetrators — wherever they are — are long gone.

What do you think? Should I try to bring his case to Western Union’s attention, anyway? Or is this a $6,600 lesson learned?

A poll of more than 600 readers taken this morning says: lesson learned.

(Photo: Ca Ra/Flickr Creative Commons)

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