February 28, 2020
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‘Mugged In Rio! Send $$’

Being phone-hacked needn’t just be alarming. It can be riotous fun.

‘Mugged In Rio! Send $$’
Illustration by Sorit
‘Mugged In Rio! Send $$’

I was in Spain, having made a “little trip” there. I had lost my luggage with my passport, phone and credit cards. The embassy was keen to help me, but they could not do it without money (perhaps they had lost their luggage too). Bank verification would take time. Could you please send me $900 ASAP through a Western Union money transfer? I will, of course, pay you back when I get home.

That was the gist of the message. It was sent to every friend and acquaintance on my contacts list (including myself). The first phone call, early in the morning, said simply: “You have been hacked!”

As the hackee, my first response was one of alarm—what about my bank accounts, what about my mother, who at 74 is an Internet addict but not familiar with the Internet cons? The bank was called first, and only then (I am ashamed to say) was my mother. Meanwhile, the messages and phone calls. Cricketers, writers, academics, schoolmates, university pals, the guy I had met only a couple of days earlier, the gentleman in Tuscany with an art gallery who had been keen on buying my sculptor-wife’s work some years ago.

The messages ranged from “Nice try, old man” to “That’s terrible, let me transfer one million dollars; are you sure that’s enough? I can send two million.” There was also one which said, “Oh! So this is how you finance your book addiction!”

A writer from Australia expressed surprise that the con continued to be popular. You would think they might have moved on to something new, he wrote. Clearly, enough people continue to be fooled to make it economically advantageous to the hacker. If even two per cent of those on the list (of about 300) were conned into paying up, that’s $5,400; not a bad day’s work at all. Everytime someone responds, his account is in danger of being hacked into. Ad infinitum, if not actually ad nauseam.

Once the initial surprise wears off (like heart attacks and road accidents, you always assume such things only happen to other people), you can actually enjoy yourself so long as no serious damage is done. My contacts list disappeared, but was restored within 48 hours. However, I’m moving on to a new e-mail id—when a relationship ends, it helps if you can recognise the fact early. No point hanging on to a spouse or an e-mail id beyond the sell-by date.

But there is an upside. Friends you have been out of touch with for decades call up or write, sometimes both. You can tell a lot about a friend from the manner in which he responds. Replying to a whole lot of personal messages is interesting (“This is a hoax, of course, but if you want to send me the $900, I can give you my Bangalore address”). Soon, you are upset that so-and-so has not bothered to write or someone else has not taken the trouble to call. Hackery is a fine test of friendship, Aesop might have said had he been writing his fables today.

I’ve often wondered what my friends would make of it if I were to actually lose my papers in Milan or Istanbul and send out a message asking for money.

Most of us cannot get beyond the telegraphic—in trouble, need help, send money—that served us so well in our student days when offering long explanations while writing home for money merely extended the agony. Ironically, that will work best now since hackers write well and in such detail. When you receive something almost poetic from a ‘friend’ who is innocent of such language, that would be suspicious.

I think the best way to tell friends that a cry for help is genuine is by introducing a word that is easily identified by them, and only them. For example, dear reader, if you should receive a message from me with the word ‘saccade’ in it, then it is authentic. Lovely word that, and unlikely to be in the vocabulary of most hackers (it means, in the unlikely event that you don’t know, “a small rapid, jerky movement of the eye”. While reading, for example).

Why do we never receive messages saying, “Stuck in Tumkur, my car’s broken down in the middle of nowhere. Please send Rs 10 lakh to buy new car or Rs 300 for the bus?” Perhaps some day we will. Competition among hackers will drive down the price, and anyway there’s a better chance of friends sending Rs 300 than working out the rate for $900.

There is joy in reconnecting with old friends, and for this, I must thank the hacker. It warms the ‘cocker spaniels of the heart’ (as a friend once said) to know that so many of them are ready to pull you out of a hole if necessary. What man can ask for more?

(Suresh Menon is editor, Wisden India Almanack)

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