The e-mail subject line reads “Help!!!!” and the message tells a sad story of being robbed while abroad, and asks for money to be wired ASAP to settle hotel bills or buy a plane ticket home. Because the message appears to come from a friend, says the San Francisco Chronicle, some well-meaning recipients send funds, often a couple of thousand dollars. Once a con artist claims that money, usually with a fake ID, there is little that can be done to retrieve it or track down the crook. The con, called the “money-transfer scam,” the “stranded scam” or the “emergency scam,” has proliferated in recent months.
“It’s grown beyond a dull roar to a major problem,” said Robert Morgestar, a California deputy attorney general for special crimes. The FBI has seen a spike in complaints about the scam and has issued two public service announcements about it in recent months. The Internet makes it a lot easier because (con artists) can just do it in writing and don’t have to explain” why their voice doesn’t sound familiar, Morgestar said. “The whole premise is to create a sense of urgency to get the victim to do something quickly they normally may not do.” A San Francisco yoga teacher who received a “Help!!!!” e-mail from an old friend, Adina Rose, an East Bay therapist. It said she’d been robbed in Wales and desperately needed a short-term loan to get home. It said her cell phone had been stolen but she still had ID to pick up the money. It even had her standard tri-colored signature line: “Peace Love Chocolate.” “I’ve known Adina for many years and I know she loves to travel,” the man said. “I had no doubt it was her; I even made excuses for the poor English. I figured she was so upset about being held up at gunpoint that she couldn’t concentrate on making every word perfect.” The man, who asked not to be identified because of embarrassment, went to Western Union and sent about $3,600.