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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/11/2011 9:28:44 AM ET 2011-02-11T14:28:44

Con artists like to use what’s happening in the news to trick their victims. The chaos in Egypt has given the bad guys a new story line for a long-running and very successful swindle.

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It starts with an e-mail that appears to be from someone you know. Your “friend” claims to be overseas and in trouble after being robbed. He or she needs money right away. For several years now, that mugging supposedly took place in London. Now, the location has switched to Egypt.

Slideshow: Egypt's Mubarak steps down (on this page)

“It’s the exact same scam and the exact same message,” says Rich Buhler of TruthorFiction.com. “They’re just substituting Cairo for London because it’s in the news.”

Here’s an example of that bogus e-mail:

Sorry I didn't inform you about my trip to Egypt for a program, I am presently in Cairo, something extremely awful happened to me, I was mugged at gun point on my way to the Hotel by some Hoodlums among the Protesters and they made away with my Bag and other valuables. I mail my bank for a wire transfer but it has proven almost Impossible to operate my account from here as they made me understand international transactions take 4 working days to be effective which i can't wait due to the ongoing protests in Egypt.

I feel so devastated, now my passport and other belongings are been retained by the hotel management pending the time I pay my hotel bills. This is shameful, I need you to help me with a loan of (821 Pounds = 1322 Usd) to pay my hotel bills and get myself home. I will reimburse you soon as I get back Home. I will appreciate whatever you can assist me with. Can you help?

Reply ASAP
Many thanks in advance.

Notice how vague the message is. It doesn’t give the name of the hotel. It doesn’t give a phone contact. It talks about home but doesn’t mention a specific city. The scammers hope their made-up plea for help is emotionally powerful enough that you will respond impulsively without checking it out.

“This is immensely lucrative for the scammer,” says Joe Ridout, a fraud expert with Consumer Action.

All you need it a few people to fall for it and send a couple of thousand dollars each and it’s a very profitable endeavor.”

How did they get your name?
The key to this scam is to make you think the “help me” message is coming from a friend.  Some of the scammers use malicious software to collect e-mail addresses from personal computers. They can use this information to customize the e-mail and make the targets of the scam think it’s from someone they know.

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Others hack into Facebook accounts and send a plea for help to all of the person’s friends. This gives the con a complete air of legitimacy. Unless you know that person well enough to know they’re not in Cairo or London, you might think the plea for help is true and respond. Using social networks, the scammers were able to quickly and efficiently spread the original “Help, I’m in London and been mugged” scam e-mail. (My colleague Bob Sullivan warned about this in his Red Tape Chronicles.)

“This is just a digital form of a classic confidence scheme,” notes Dave Marcus, Director of Security Research at McAfee Labs. “You think you may know that person and of course you want to help out someone who is in distress.”

Protect yourself
Most people would never fall for this con. But enough do, that cyberthieves keep using it. Never respond to any e-mail (or phone call for that matter) for help, until you’ve had time to investigate that it’s for real. Check to see if you can reach the person who is supposedly contacting you. A single phone call might be all it takes to uncover the fraud.

Never respond to a plea for money where you are asked to wire the funds right away. Crooks love wire transfers because they’re instant and nearly impossible to trace.

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“Wiring money gives you virtually no anti-fraud protections whatsoever,” Consumer Action’s Joe Ridout warns. “Once you wire that money it is gone and once it’s in the hand of a scammer you’re never going to see it again.”

One more thing: If you get this e-mail or anything like it – don’t reply, even to say no.

“Even if the person does not send money, just responding to the e-mail is valuable information to the scam artist,” explains John Breyault, who runs the National Consumers League’s Fraud Center. “The scammers buy, sell and trade lists of potential victims because if they responded, they might fall for some other scam.”

Finally, if you have been a victim of this type of scam or any other cybercrime, you should report it to the Internet Crime Complaint Center run by the FBI. The IC3 complaint database helps law enforcement agencies identity emerging trends and patterns, so they can go after the criminals.

Want to keep up with the latest on consumer news, follow the ConsumerMan on Facebook .

Photos: Farewell Friday

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  1. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Feb. 11. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Egyptians set off fireworks as they celebrate in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after President Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in the Grand Foyer at the White House in Washington D.C. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military on Friday. Egypt exploded with joy, tears, and relief after pro-democracy protesters brought down President Hosni Mubarak with a momentous march on his palaces and state TV. Mubarak, who until the end seemed unable to grasp the depth of resentment over his three decades of authoritarian rule, finally resigned Friday. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters walk over a barricade after it was taken down to allow free entry to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011. A furious wave of protest finally swept Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak from power, sending a warning to autocrats across the Arab world and beyond. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A spokesman for Egypt's higher military council reads a statement titled “Communiqué No. 3” in this video still on Friday. Egypt's higher military council said it would announce measures for a transitional phase after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. (Reuters Tv / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Egyptian celebrates in Cairo after the announcement of President Mubarak's resignation. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. A furious wave of protest finally swept Mubarak from power after 30 years of one-man rule, sparking jubilation in the streets. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An Egyptian reacts in the street after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday, Feb. 11. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Thousands of Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation on Friday. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Egyptian soldiers celebrate with anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square on Friday. Cairo's streets exploded in joy when Mubarak stepped down after three-decades of autocratic rule and handed power to a junta of senior military commanders. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Egyptians celebrate the news of Mubarak's resignation in Tahrir Square on Friday. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Egyptian woman cries as she celebrates the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military, Friday night, in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate minutes after the announcement on television of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had resigned. (Khaled Elfiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Opposition protesters celebrate Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, in Tahrir Square on Friday. President Mubarak bowed to pressure from the street and resigned, handing power to the army. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. On Egyptian state television, Al-Masriya, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman delivers an address announcing that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, in Cairo on Friday. (TV via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo
    Dylan Martinez / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (18) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Farewell Friday
  2. Image: Protester in Tahrir Square
    Emilio Morenatti / AP
    Slideshow (61) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 3
  3. Image: Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters
    Amr Nabil / AP
    Slideshow (93) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 2
  4. Image: Mohamed ElBaradei
    Khalil Hamra / AP
    Slideshow (83) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 1
  5. Image:
    Mayra Beltran / AP
    Slideshow (17) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - World reacts

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