Friday, March 9, 2012

Something Phishy?

by Sheila Connolly

Recently I received an email request from someone who claimed to be a middle-school student writing a school assignment—about me. How sweet, I thought. I'm flattered.

Until I read her list of questions. She wanted to know my date of birth, who my parents were, where I went to school. And the red flag of suspicion went up.

My sister has been the victim of identity theft, and she rarely even uses a computer. Every day I receive spam telling me that I've won a million dollars, and all they need is my bank account number to transfer the funds. If I believe the taglines, I win a contest at least once a week. Who do I trust?

Part of me wants to believe the (supposedly) young sender of the school project request. The suspicious mystery-writer part of me says, "not so fast." So first I asked a group of fellow mystery writers if they had received anything like this. The answer was no (although they do get a lot of requests for a free book, to "review"). Then I did a quick Google search and found the specific school the writer mentioned, with a nice website. I also found a reference to the sender, in a blog supposedly written by family members. All good, right?

But still… The email itself was surprisingly well written—better than I would expect from a thirteen-year-old. That made me suspicious (my apologies to that state's educational system if I have in any way maligned you—if this email isn't bogus, you're doing a good job.). Anybody trolling the web could find the same information about the sender that I did. For that matter, anybody with even limited web expertise could find a lot of information about me, and I don't hide a lot—probably less than I should. I don't list my home address or the names of my family members on any site I control, although I'm sure there are probably plenty of public directories that would cough that up in a few seconds. And I don't give out my date of birth. Ever.

The whole thing makes me sad. Part of me wants to take the request at face value and write back with at least some of the requested information. Part of me envisions some evil person (or even a group of people) generating mass emails with just enough real information to give credibility, and then sitting back rubbing their hands, waiting for that small number of gullible authors (that's right, hit us right in our vanity—I'm a "famous author"!) who will do exactly as requested and cough up essential information so that the sender can clone us and trash our credit rating.

I asked my writer colleagues what they would do. The consensus was "do nothing." Do not engage this person in a dialogue. Do not respond, certainly not with any additional information. But I was reared to be polite, and I hate the idea of disappointing an eager young person who's just trying to finish a school assignment. If that's really who it is.

So, if you, young correspondent, happen to read this post, by a Famous Writer, I'm sorry you asked in a time when we are forced to be less and less trusting. When our lives are guarded by passwords and captchas and firewalls and virus detectors. I want to believe you are sincere, really I do, but the downside risk is too great. I wish you the best of luck with your assignment.

What would you do?


Kaye said...

Isn't this a sad commentary on society as a whole? Scary stuff.

Anonymous said...

So sad. Twenty-five years ago when I had students write to authors, no one worried about identity theft. Many students received wonderful personal responses which thrilled them. At the end of my teaching career, I wouldn't have given the assignment. Indeed as Kaye commented, "Scary stuff."

Barb Goffman said...

Sheila, are there any questions you can answer about your books or writing that don't reveal personal data? I might respond, answering those questions, and then say that you're sorry but you don't feel comfortable providing the answers to the other questions.