TORONTO - An Internet con artist has targeted hundreds in upscale Toronto neighbourhoods in recent days, preying on the goodwill of people led to believe their friends are stranded overseas and need money now.
Police are trying to track down the culprit, but cyber crime can originate anywhere in the world, making it difficult to make an arrest.
The fraud begins when the hacker finds a way into a private email account and changes the password so the account is inaccessible to the owner, Det. Murray Barnes of Toronto police said Sunday.
The hacker then poses as the owner of the account and spams everyone on the address list, claiming to be stranded in a foreign city such as Birmingham, England.
He or she pleads with friends to send money. Those who reply typically get brief responses urging them to send the money quickly via Western Union-meaning the funds can be accessed from anywhere.
The hacker generally asks for an amount that seems reasonable, enough to pay the airfare from London to Toronto, for example.
Barnes said the fraud is widespread around the world and he's sure a lot of people have sent money without ever reporting it.
"Quite a few people have been taken hook, line and sinker by this," he said.
Most recently, the hacker targeted a high-earning group by breaking into a Toronto medical professional's account.
"This person's email list was vast and covered a lot of people in that profession."
One of the 400 contacts who received the request sent $2,500, while another sent $1,000.
Barnes has been aware of the scam since he received one of the bogus email appeals for money 18 months ago. He didn't fall for it: he knew his friend wasn't in London, England as the email said.
Yet the case is a tough one to crack. Even determining the fraudster's sex is a challenge, since he or she takes on the identities of various email account holders. Barnes said he thinks the emails originate with a male suspect, though he can't say for sure.
The suspect could be in Toronto or any of hundreds of cities worldwide, and he claims to be in locations ranging from the U.K. to the U.S., depending on who he impersonates.
The scam can occur with any kind of email account, too, whether Hotmail, Rogers or Bell. In one case, an account owner supplied the password in response to an email that seemed legitimate, Barnes said.
"Whatever password they can get their hands on, they will access and take over that account."
Should detectives identify a suspect and find that he is based outside Canada, Toronto police would have trouble laying charges for a crime committed beyond their jurisdiction. Barnes doesn't know of any major investigations into this particular scam elsewhere in Canada or internationally.
"If the suspect is based in another country, I'm in a different kettle of fish," Barnes said.
"You keep plugging away and hope they make a mistake and leave a trail I can follow, then are found in a country I have access to."
He advised that anyone who receives a plea for money check its validity by contacting the apparent sender by some means other than email.
The spate of fake pleas for money came as hackers put a popular social media site, Twitter, out of commission for several hours Thursday in an attack on a blogger in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.