"I'm writing this with tears in my eyes." That's how an e-mail to all my friends began, an e-mail supposedly coming from me. A compelling e-mail ... but one that I never wrote.
"I'm writing this with tears in my eyes."
That's how an e-mail to all my friends began, an e-mail supposedly coming from me. It went on to say that we were stuck in Wales, UK, because my husband had been beaten up and we had been robbed of everything. It mentioned my husband and my two sons by name, and begged them for money so we could get out of Wales.
A compelling e-mail ... but one that I never wrote. Using family information gleaned from my Facebook page, someone had crafted a convincing message from my Gmail account that attempted to shake down hundreds of people on my contact list.
Last week someone hijacked both my Gmail and my Facebook accounts, after I unwittingly handed them the key. I was "phished." Somebody made a Facebook log-in screen appear on my computer; and, thinking I had been accidentally logged off, I took the bait and entered in my e-mail and my password, which was the same for both accounts.
What followed was the ninth circle of Internet hell and several sleepless nights as I worried not only about our friends who might take the bait. I worried about my family's safety, since my Gmail always added my home and cell phone numbers when I sent a message - information that the hackers now had.
And what made it worse was the laid-back, automated e-mail responses of both Gmail and Facebook, which showed no urgency in dealing with our problems despite several frantic messages we sent to them.
The morning after I was phished, hundreds of e-mails went out to my extensive contact list. After we figured out what happened, my son and I tried to log back into both accounts. We temporarily were able to re-set both passwords, and entered the Gmail for long enough to see that all my inbound e-mails were being routed to a Yahoo account, bypassing my Gmail inbox. We disabled the forwarding. We also posted a message on my Facebook page that some dirtbag had taken over my identity.
But within minutes, the thieves were in control again and we were no longer able to enter either Facebook or Gmail. The message we had posted on Facebook had been taken down, and the alarmed calls from friends kept coming in. We tried to reset the passwords again, then sent emails to Facebook and Google through their online support pages. Their response was to lock me out of my accounts and tell me to wait it out.
Two days later, still locked out, I tried to call Google headquarters in California. I had to hunt for the phone number since Google does not publish it anywhere on their online subscriber information.
There, a bored-sounding woman flatly told me that no human at Google will deal with problems like mine, that I had to "fill out a form online." When I protested, she sounded annoyed.
And Facebook, which cheerily refers to "The Facebook Team" in all of its online help pages and e-mails to its subscribers, retires to the locker room when a real problem occurs. It has no hotline to help those who get into trouble. As with Gmail, I had to fill out an online form and wait. It's three days later and I'm still waiting.
So now, as soon as I can get my account straightened out, I plan to become today's equivalent of a hermit in a hut: somebody who's not on Facebook. It bothers me that a site that pushes its subscribers to share information about family members, friends and interests - and tries to make money off that information through targeted advertising - has no sense of urgency when a criminal misuses that information.
I will miss it. I will miss being able to check on my adult children and see their photos, to keep in touch with my cousins and my childhood and college friends, to see who got rubbed out in "Mafia Wars." I will miss being able to share news easily with them. For a while, I will feel as if I've been the only one not invited to a big party.
But as I am still trying to minimize the damage - changing passwords and logins for accounts, setting up a new e-mail and alerting my friends. I've found at least one friend who took the bait and sent $300 to these scumbags. I'm trying to get through to Facebook yet again - and realizing the social networking party is over for me.
As for Google, I've already set up a new e-mail account somewhere else - one that offers a hotline for help - and plan to cancel my Gmail account as soon as I can get in there again.
The takeaway from this? If your computer ever unexpectedly asks you for a user name and password, be suspicious even if the sign-in screen looks familiar. Use different, illogical passwords for every account. And beware of sites like Gmail and Facebook that offer you an Internet presence for free - because the price is high if your account is compromised, and they won't care.
Catherine Buday is a MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News staff writer and editor of the Marlborough Enterprise and Hudson Sun.