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Phony court dates raise alarms with email recipient

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Nine days ago, Lucy Mangan authored a tongue-in-cheek column for The Guardian lamenting the unimaginative state of the fraud industry in England.

All riled up by the tale of a rail commuter who exploited a loophole in the card payment system to save the equivalent of $25,000 in U.S. dollars over a five-year period, Mangan asks: “This – this is the best we can come up with?”

“What happened to forging Nazi diaries? Or pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son, or Anastasia, or the yeti or Loch Ness monster,” she asks incredulously. “Where’s the style? Where’s the chutzpah? Where’s the effort, the imagination, the joy?”

Mangan concludes that fraud today primarily has become an exercise in using computer programs to skim money from unsuspecting victims – a little here, a little there – “but never with any panache.”

I couldn’t help but think of Mangan’s observations when I sat down to write this week’s column about an Albuquerque woman who was notified by email that she was scheduled to appear at two court hearings come June – the first one some 1,600 miles away; the second a bit closer at 1,300.

Both inside two states that she hadn’t stepped foot in since, in her words, dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

“When you stop and think about this logically,” Vanessa Whittemore told the Journal last week, “it doesn’t make sense.”

It’s not so much, then, that this particular scam lacks “panache” – to borrow one of Mangan’s more flowery terms – but rather is so preposterous that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually would fall for it.

Still, this scam is worrisome enough to have prompted warnings in recent months from court officials in Maryland, Nebraska and Pennsylvania because the emails contain an attachment that when clicked can unleash a dangerous virus on the unsuspecting recipient’s computer, putting their personal and financial information at risk.

The obvious ploy here is to frighten people into opening the attachment – an action that should be resisted at all costs upon receipt of suspicious or unsolicited emails.

Earlier this month, Whittemore said she received an email purportedly from the clerk of the “court of Louisville” notifying her that her hearing had been scheduled for June 25 at 11 a.m.

The email never said why she was being summoned to appear, only that she was to bring all documents and witnesses related to her case – whatever that might be.

“The copy of the court notice is attached to this letter, please, download and read it thoroughly,” the email concluded. “Note: The case may be heard by the judge in your absence if you do not come.”

Whittemore, who moved to New Mexico in 1990, said it didn’t take her long to determine the email was bogus, starting with the fact that she doesn’t ever remember being in Louisville. Other than once driving through parts of Kentucky some 30 or 40 years ago – “long enough ago that I don’t remember doing it,” she said – she hadn’t been to the Bluegrass State.

But that wasn’t all. Whittemore found it odd that there was no contact information for the clerk of court and that the notice didn’t say which court in Louisville she was supposed to attend.

So she proceeded to do what consumer-protection advocates consistently recommend: She ignored the attachment contained in her email and went directly to the real source, in this case Louisville-based Jefferson County District Court.

First, she checked the online calendar and learned that no hearings had been scheduled yet for June 25. Then she found the name of a contact person and dashed off an email explaining her situation.

“This was not really from Jefferson Circuit Court,” came the reply. “Please delete it.”

End of story? Not quite.

A few days later, Whittemore received a virtually identical email, this one notifying her that she was scheduled to appear in the “court of Pittsburgh” on June 9 at 11:45 a.m.

Needless to say, she didn’t take the bait on that one, either.

“Their goal is to get law-abiding people like me to say, ‘Oh, my God,’ and open the attachment,” she said.

“Like stuff that’s too good to be true, there’s stuff that’s too bad to be true.”

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.com

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