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Export councilwoman victim of e-mail phishing operation

| Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010

In an e-mail sent to at least 100 people this week, Export Councilwoman Melanie Litz sounded desperate: She was stranded in London and needed their help.

While vacationing, she was robbed at gunpoint, the e-mail explained, and the thieves made off with luggage, cash and credit cards. She needed money so she could travel back home.

But Litz wasn't in London. She was safe and sound in Westmoreland County, and the e-mail was a hoax.

"My e-mail has been completely hijacked," Litz said Friday. "When I try to get in it, it says my account has been closed. ... I hope nobody tried to respond to the e-mail. I think most people, after further investigation, can tell that's something kind of questionable."

Litz said she has more than 100 addresses on her contact list, so the message may have reached as many as 150 people.

One was Export Mayor Michael Calder, an attorney, who said the writing style was a tip-off that the e-mail was a hoax.

"It was written by someone who can barely speak English," Calder said. "When it's atypical to the usual correspondence from the alleged deliverer, a red flag has to be raised."

Hotmail is investigating the bogus e-mail and shut down Litz's account for a few days.

Internet companies take measures to prevent fraudulent practices such as phishing, which is an attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by masquerading as a legitimate entity.

"What happens is these are getting so sophisticated," said Tricia Primrose, an AOL spokeswoman. "They look like they're coming from the company (they say they're from). ... As wonderful as the Internet is and as simple as it makes our lives, we still have to be on guard every day as users, protecting our own accounts, protecting our passwords."

Primrose offered tips to Internet users.

Don't click on links, don't share account or billing information. Change your password every 30 to 90 days, and choose passwords that aren't easily detected. "You want it to be easy to remember, but hard to guess," she said.

A spokesman for Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, said a user who suspects a phishing scam should take four steps: Report the incident to the proper authorities; change all passwords for online accounts; review credit reports and bank and credit card statements; and make sure to use the latest technologies as protection from future scams.

"Microsoft is aware that these types of problems occur and is committed to helping consumers have a safe, secure and positive online experience," the spokesman said. "Our general guidance is to exercise extreme caution when opening unsolicited attachments and links from both known and unknown sources, and that they install and regularly update their anti-virus software."

As for Litz, she takes some satisfaction in the outpouring of support she's received since the e-mail went out.

"I've gotten calls from far and wide," she said. "At least I know if I'm ever in trouble, I have people I can count on."

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