Internet Scammers Find a New Approach

Anyone who has an e-mail address has probably received a ton of spam. But Internet scammers have found a new way to try to steal your money. Now they threaten your life.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, let's continue our business news by reporting on the business of crime. Criminals are getting more creative and bold when it comes to trying to separate you from your money. One of the newest e-mail scams takes it a step further.

Susan Mittleman reports from member station WABE in Atlanta.

SUSAN MITTLEMAN: Just when you thought you've managed to identify bogus emails, this pops in.

Ms. KATIE STEVENS(ph): I have paid some ransom in advance to terminate you with some reasons listed to me by my employer. It's someone I believe you call a friend. I have followed you closely for a while now and have seen that you are not innocent of the accusations he's leveled against you.

MITTLEMAN: This is what Katie Stevens found: an e-mail from a so-called hitman who said he had change of heart, and if she paid him $8,000, he would betray his employer and not kill her.

Ms. STEVENS: I was scared to death. I mean, I wanted to believe that it's just a hoax. Don't put too much faith in it. But at the same token, when somebody tells you that they have been hired to terminate you, I was scared out of my mind.

MITTLEMAN: Stevens lives in a quiet rural neighborhood in Newton County, Georgia, near Atlanta with her three young children and her husband, who happens to be a police officer. She's pretty savvy about e-mail scams, deleting those overseas lottery winnings and other e-mails asking for money. But this one was different.

Ms. STEVENS: Because it has specific instructions of what I was supposed to do and not to get the police involved, not to put surveillance cameras up. I mean, there was specific instructions, and it wasn't Western Union me or send me cash. It was I'm going to meet you, and you're going to hand it to me.

MITTLEMAN: She was told not to leave her house after 7:30 at night, with threats to her family if she ignored the warnings. The letter stated that upon first payment, she'd receive an incriminating video tape of the person behind all this. Her husband immediately contacted Sheriff Lieutenant Bill Watterson.

Sheriff Lieutenant BILL WATTERSON (Newton County, Georgia): When I initially received this e-mail, we had no knowledge that this was a fraud or a scam. So I approached it with it being a serious threat against her life.

MITTLEMAN: He subpoenaed her e-mail records, and then things started to unravel. First, he says, they asked for $8,000 for a copy of the tape. And then they start lowering the ransom.

Sheriff Lt. WATTERSON: Eventually, they're going to get to a stage where they have her send the money to an address, never meeting them, you know, sending maybe the amount of $2,000 for the tape. And a lot of people would do that, no questions asked.

MITTLEMAN: Authorities traced the e-mail back to AT&T, who's fraud representative said that several servers were highjacked - so to speak - by scammers in Nigeria, India and Estonia.

AT&T's Dawn Benton says they're still investigating.

Ms. DAWN BENTON (AT&T): This is just another attempt for scammers to get personal information and to obtain funds from consumers.

MITTLEMAN: Katie Stevens still felt threatened, despite being married to a cop. She worries that vulnerable people are most at risk.

Ms. STEVENS: It could be an elderly woman who has no family left anymore and gets this email, and it's scary. You know, I know how scared I was. I can't imagine being alone trying to handle something like this.

MITTLEMAN: Authorities are concerned that scammers keep coming up with new intimidation tactics like this to take advantage of unsuspecting victims.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Mittleman in Atlanta.

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