TERRY PRONE: Important message: Beware texts claiming to be important messages

THIS column is a warning and an apology. At bedtime last Thursday, I hit the scratcher and went to sleep. An hour later, my phone chirped. It was a text. Would I emerge from a good dream to deal with it? No. Just as sleep reclaimed me, the phone chirped that it had an email. 

To hell with it, I thought. Then, it chirped again, and soon — like labour contractions — the gaps between the noises narrowed to three minutes.

I figured World War Three had broken out, so I put the lights on and squinted at the phone. It had a line of messages, like a necklace, in its email inbox.

Odd messages, each telling me that my emails to Joe Bloggs, Mahatma McGrady, Leonora Van Gleevec, and Aloysius Abbas had failed to reach their targets. (Not their real names, you understand.)

I had not sent emails to any of those people, for the following good reasons.

Joe Bloggs retired 10 years ago and lives on a golf course in Portugal.

Mahatma McGrady, the last I heard of him, had joined the police force in Singapore.

Leonora Van Gleevec had, like Mr Bloggs, retired.

Aloysius Abbas was dead, having peacefully popped his clogs at 96, surrounded by four Abbas generations.

You will understand, then, that the email addresses in my contacts’ book for these individuals might be out of date, ergo non-functional; hence, my old friend Maeler Daemon had bounced them back to me.

But he didn’t stop there, did Mr Daemon. He kept them coming, faster than I could check them.

The list was somewhere between the obituaries they read in hushed tones on local radio programmes and an account of recession emigration.

When it hit more than a hundred, I decided there was nothing I could do about this electronic spewing frenzy, so I turned the phone off, and went back to sleep.

Which meant that when, long before dawn, it was turned back on, it vibrated itself off the surface onto the floor, so committed was it to projectile vomiting.

When it paused for breath, a phone call came through from an unidentified caller.

“Are you all right?” asked the female voice.

”In what sense?” I responded. (You don’t spend decades training politicians without learning a few avoidance behaviours.)

“You sent me a strange message,” the voice said.

“Who are you?” I replied.

“You KNOW who I am,” she snapped.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Your number came up without a name.”

Sounding somewhat hurt that I hadn’t identified her by voice, she gave her name. I had not spoken with her in 18 months, during which time she had completed her masters in London, she told me, and had landed the dream job.

We celebrated these achievements, which was, at six in the morning, a great start to the day. Then she got to the message.

“Dropbox,” she failed to explain.

“Sorry?” I retorted.

“You sent me a message labelled, in capital letters, ‘IMPORTANT’ and it tells me to open the Dropbox attachment.”

“I don’t use Dropbox,” I said.

Long silence, while we both worked out that I clearly had not sent the message, which, fortunately, she had been unable to open.

“You’ve been hacked,” she said crisply. “I don’t envy you the rest of the day.”

The situation was interesting, it has to be said. Hundreds of texts and phone calls, many of them from people with whom I had lost touch years ago.

Most of them were anxious in tone, the recipients convinced, they said, that because it was from me and labelled ‘IMPORTANT’ it must be. Which was very flattering.

At least I wasn’t as immediately spurious as those emails from Nigeria stating that the sender is stranded at an obscure airport and would the recipient please send a thousand euro, which would be paid back within days, definitely.

One of the recipients, a captain of industry you wouldn’t think would have the time to care texted me before breakfast to tell me I had been hacked, adding that “if anybody was foolish enough to follow the dodgy Dropbox link, their own email accont is compromised and they need to change ALL their passwords. I suspect it was not your phone, but your email account that was hacked and you should change ALL of your online passwords, including your online shopping and banking login passwords.”

Before I had fully digested that, he texted again.

“You may want to alert everyone in your email account address book,” he said.

Within the hour, the man from Newtech was ensconced at my desk, surrounded by the four devices I use, doing forensics on the incident and sending out an apologetic warning, as had been suggested.

The tsunami of responses came in two forms. Roughly half said variants on “figured it was a scam, so didn’t open it, sorry for your trouble”.

The other half said things like “oh, God, I spent hours trying to make it work. Gave it passwords, because I thought it was you.”

The latter half, understandably, were not sorry for my trouble. They were livid over their own trouble, even though our technical genius said that if they acted within a couple of hours of the hacking, they’d be grand.

Meanwhile, our server had to be scrubbed, so everybody was off the internet for an hour, and our man in Manila, who was about to deliver a training programme there, had to contact his wife, his bank, and a number of other people, long-distance, because he had assumed that if a colleague sent him an oddity, it might be a meaningful and important oddity and so he had shared his details.

The bank guys are terribly efficient in this situation, but as I have a defective memory, courtesy of a car crash, I’m always afraid that when I hesitate at the point where they ask me the name of my pet or my husband, the gardaí will be at the door in minutes.

In the middle of all the chaos, I received a call from a former client who said she had guessed the message had not been sent by me, but that it had been useful, because she had a big project coming up and it had reminded her that I did this kind of work. Was I interested?

Was I what? This encounter established that being hacked is the technological version of Bunny Carr’s approach to marketing himself in RTÉ as a freelance broadcaster, 40 years ago, when he would amble through the open-plan Radio Centre once a week, confident that some producer would glance up and say “Bunny! The very man!”

The bottom line is that I’m sorry if you received this scam email, which was ostensibly from me.

If you didn’t receive it, but at some stage in the future receive a similarly puzzling missive, kill it at source, and alert the ‘sender’.


Louisa Earls is a manager at Books Upstairs, D’Olier St, Dublin, which is owned by her father, Maurice Earls.Virus response writes a new chapter for Books Upstairs

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