“Social engineering,” the fancy term for tricking you into giving away your digital secrets, is at least as great a threat as spooky technology. We all know (right?) about the scam emails that inform you of a surprise inheritance or lottery win. Recently I came across a surprising variation: a scam that deliberately targets folks who should be too smart to fall for it.
A fellow who called himself “Professor Dave Christopher” from England invited me to speak at a university conference. I do that kind of speaking now and then, and at first glance the email could have been legit. What intrigues me is that “Christopher” said he found me on the web site of the American Program Bureau, which does in fact represent me for speaking engagements. (I just noticed the bio needs updating.) The client list is filled with a lot bigger names than the likes of me: David Mamet, Spike Lee, Diane Keaton, Sir Richard Branson, Steve Wozniak, Larry King, Anderson Cooper, Bill Parcells, and a sprinkling of prime ministers and presidents. Did the good professor send invitations to all of them? They’d be ripe targets, I suppose, if they fell for it, but seriously … is that likely? Well, maybe so. Consider the list of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme victims. It’s not a bad reminder for all of us — don’t click, or hit reply, before you think.
In this case, a closer look at the invitation made clear pretty fast that it was fraudulent. The good professor wrote from a gmail account, did not show command of English as a primary language, thought Northumbria University (in Newcastle) was in London (a three-hour train ride away), and so on. Your humble servant, Counterspy, decided to let the scam play out a bit. I wrote back with a three-part message: I didn’t know much about the conference topic, I’d require first class air travel and $10,000 an hour, and I’d like the university to throw in an honorary degree. I wondered whether that was overdoing it, but no: “Christopher” was delighted at the display of credulity and greed. He accepted my terms and sent a contract to engage my services, complete with a request for my banking details so he could wire me an advance. If I had taken the next step,the usual move on his part would have been to say I had to pay a small wire transfer fee, and he’d use the information I supplied to clean me out. I would have lost everything in the account, plus the limit of my overdraft protection. Sadly, my Counterspy expense account won’t cover that, and so I stopped the game. No, I didn’t report “Christopher” to authorities (though I did give a heads up to the speakers bureau). Nobody actually investigates this kind of thing, it seems, especially if the fraud goes unconsumated.
The usual rule applies online, as it does in the rest of your life: if it looks too good to be true, it is.
Here’s the whole exchange:
From: Prof.Dave Christopher <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Respected Barton Gellman,
Am Professor Dave Christopher from the Northumbria University
Here in London UK.We w ant you to be our guest Speaker at this
Year Northumbria University Seminar which will take place here in
UK.We are writing to invite and confirm your booking to be our guest
Speaker at this years event.We want our UNIVERSITY STUDENTS to have a
successful business career and realize the future ahead of them. That
is why we intend to use these conference to educate them.
The Venue as follows:
VENUE:Northumbria University in Ellison Place
Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear NE1 8ST, United Kingdom
Expected audience: 850 people
Duration of speech per speaker: 1 Hour
Name of Organization:Northumbria University,
Date:14th October 2010
We came across your profile on http://www.apbspeakers.com/speakers
and we say it’s up to standard and we will be very glad to have such an
outstanding personality in our mist for these overwhelming gathering.
Arrangements to welcome you here will be discussed as soon as you
honor our invitation. If you have any more publicity material, please
do not hesitate to contact us. A formal Letter of invitation and
contract agreement would be sent to you as soon as you honor our
invitation. We are taking care of your
traveling and Hotel Accommodation expenses including your Speaking
fee.If you will be available for our event,include your speaking fees
in your email so it can be included in your CONTRACT AGREEMENT.
Professor Dave Christopher
Tel: +44 702 xxx xxxx
Dear Professor Christopher,
I’m flattered at the invitation, and have long had a fondness for
British universities. I must acknowledge that business management is not
my primary field of expertise, and wonder what good luck brought your
proposal to me.
For international travel, my speaking fee is $10,000 plus first class
travel expenses. I could, perhaps, reduce the fee should the faculty and
trustees of Northumbria University elect to grant me an honorary degree.
Prof.Dave Christopher wrote:
Nice reading back from you,we are over joyed to have you honor our
INVITATION.Your fees of 10,000USD is acceptable and within the
UNIVERSITY’S budget.I will proceed by sending your CONTRACT AGREEMENT
AND LETTER OF INVITATION ASAP.I believe we serve the Lord of
Possibilities and we believe we can make all arrangement’s possible in
bringing you here
Respected Barton Gellman,
Thanks for indicating your interest to be our Guest speaker at
this year NORTHUMBRIA UNIVERSITY CONFERENCE. We are very excited and
happy to have such a wonderful personality in our mist. Sorry for
contacting you late . We the event organizing committee had a meeting earlier
today to deliberate on getting you available here within a short
period of time. We believe we serve the lord of
possibilities.Arrangements are stated below.
We have agreed to buy your flight ticket and to pay your Hotel
accommodation expenses . Also your Speaking fee is amounted to
10,000USD 7,000 ( SEVEN THOUSAND USD) deposit is to be paid as
soon as you procure all relevant travel documents so as to avoid any
disappointment.You are informed to get across your Work Permit to us
so your deposit can be approved according to our mandated rules and
You are advised by the Event Organizing committee to immediately
contact our BRITISH EMBASSY here in the UK to procure your UK Work
Permit as soon as possible
This will enable us to proceed with all arrangements to welcome you
here in London. Contact the British Embassy official
Name:Dr Scott Williams
Please confirm to us the closest Airport to your location so we can
start making arrangements to buy your flight tickets .Understand that
you need to expedite action because of the short notice. Feel free to
ask any question.
We have attached a formal Letter of Invitation and contract
agreement.Please reconfirm to us your office Address for our perusal
and further action.Note you are meant to arrive a day before the
commencement of the event.
Please return a signed copy of the contract agreement for proper
We await your earliest response
Professor Dave Christopher
Tel: +44 702 xxx xxxx
TAX ID NO: _ 25048
Payable to: speaker
Speaking Fee: 10,000.00 (USD) – plus expenses as outlined above
Deposit Amount: 7,000.00 (USD) Deposit due upon Procurement of UK Work Permit and other relevant travel documents
Balance Amount: 3,000.00 (USD)
Fee Notes: Funds will be paid via Money Gram wire transfer upon conclusion of contract.
PLEASE NOTE: The first part payment of your speaking fee will be wired to you as soon as you obtain your relevant travel documents and work permit. This is to ensure readiness on your part. The management doesn’t want to undergo any loss for paying speakers travel documents due to act of insubordination from previous speakers.
The management has hereby laid down strict rules and regulations for speakers to abide by in order to ensure an uninterrupted cordial preparation for this event.
Any speakers who refuse to abide by these principles will forfeit his/her deposit and be terminated from contract.
We promise to reimburse what ever expenses our Speaker spends for the issuance of travel documents.
This contract is subject to all of the terms and conditions set forth on the back page hereof, which are part of this contract.