A hacker stole my money

A 73-year-old widow by the name of Margaret thought she met a nice man on match.com. In fact her suitor was a hacker who stole $20,000 from us, and she laundered his money. You could be a victim, too.


Last April, I took a guided tour through the world of cyber-crime. I learned brand-new (to me) words like “phishing” and took a peek into the dark world of catfishing and romance scams. I was lucky—my education cost only $20,000. Others have gotten the same education but it cost them 10 times as much.

The cast of characters includes my husband, my adult daughter, a lovesick lady I don’t know who lives in the Chicago suburbs, and a South African scammer. And the cast includes me, of course, as well as a hapless realtor and the executives of a prominent Chicago realty firm.


She wasn’t talking with the real estate agent. She was chatting with a hacker who may have been in South Africa.


The story starts in midtown Chicago, where my daughter Emma lived in a tiny, crowded basement apartment with her significant other and young son, Damien. The little family needed a bigger place. When my husband’s father left us a substantial inheritance several years earlier, he stipulated that part was to help our children buy homes.

My excited daughter, Emma, started condo shopping. Working with a well-known Chicago realty firm, she found a nice, updated condominium with wood floors and a new kitchen, located on a tree-lined street near busy Lincoln Square on the city’s north side. Once she found the property, she communicated via email with the realtor, who I’ll call Sheila Kennedy.

The realty company, @properties, is the largest real estate brokerage firm in the state of Illinois and one of the top 12 residential brokers in the U.S. With more than 20 offices around the city, the company is respected and successful. We certainly didn’t expect any problems.

CHATTING WITH A HACKER: Emma frequently exchanged pleasantries with Sheila. We later learned, however, that she wasn’t talking with Sheila much of the time. She was chatting innocently with a hacker who may have been in South Africa, someone who had commandeered Sheila’s account against her will and without her knowledge. Maybe it was that 400-pound hacker working from his bedroom that then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump mentioned during the first presidential debate?

One imagines hackers as brilliant guys who know all about various programming languages and how to write code to exploit weaknesses in a network. They seek out open ports in a system, figure out a way to crack passwords (that’s why strong passwords are so important), give themselves administrative privileges, and create backdoors so they can get back into systems. Then they take over, wreaking havoc if they wish but usually just sneaking around gathering information and hiding their “footprints” as they go.

If that sounds complicated, it is. And that’s probably not how the hackers got access to Sheila’s email. They probably used a simple “phishing” scheme, meaning they sent her an innocent-looking email from someone she thought was a friend, asking her to click on a link or download a PDF. Somehow—I’m not knowledgeable enough to know how—communications from my daughter to Sheila were then diverted.

“The scheme was very sophisticated,” I heard over and over again from bank and police officers both at home in Alabama and in Chicago.

Sheila’s last real email was dated April 8. She asked that a check for $2,000 earnest money be mailed to Dream Town Realty. Her following e-mails—from the same gmail account, with all the same addresses and slogans at the bottom—came from the imposter. The new emails even boasted, “Top Agent Magazine, 2014 & 2015,” and “Chicago Top Producer 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013 & 2014.”

“I have a busy schedule today with closings and meeting, I will wait on your email,” says one. “I hope you are keeping safe from all the storms and tornadoes,” reads another, and “I hope you had a nice Easter,” says yet another.

The one thing all the emails had in common was continual reminders about the necessity of wiring the $20,000 down payment to the title company. The emails continued to be friendly, their tone casual.

“Sorry I was in a showing since 8am, just got your email, I am walking into another meeting till 4pm, Let me know once the wire has been done,” the hacker wrote, for example.

AN ARDENT SUITOR: In the meantime, a 73-year-old widow by the name of Margaret thought she had met a very nice man on match.com. A devout Catholic, she lived in the northwest Chicago suburb of Algonquin and had built a reputation as a talented artisan, arranging beautiful floral arrangements in collectibles such as vintage china or a tiny child’s wooden sled. Margaret’s Swiss-born husband, Walter, had died recently, so she was testing the waters after many years of marriage. She was the perfect prey for a romance scam—catfishing, it’s called.


Her suitor was a businessman building a hospital in China, and he needed emergency funds.   


Romance scammers prey on nice people. They look for kind people, people with empathy. They build trust, setting their snares. When they need help, the nice lady or the nice man responds. Margaret is lucky she didn’t lose a lot of money; the criminal behind this particular elaborate scheme only wanted a legitimate bank account in the Chicago area where the marks—my husband and me—could wire money without our suspicions being aroused.

Margaret wasn’t suspicious, either. Her suitor was a businessman building a hospital in China. He had a need for emergency funds. When the money was wired into her account, she immediately sent it on to China. At least that’s where she thought the money went. Police later told me they traced our $20,000 to South Africa. Technically, Margaret was a money-launderer. Nobody thought of pressing charges, however.

We would have been on guard immediately if we had been instructed to wire money to a foreign account. In fact, we were on guard soon after, when “Sheila” asked us to wire another $60,000 as part of the purchase price. We knew that didn’t sound right because that money should have come from mortgage proceeds, and we hadn’t completed the process. We immediately started asking questions.

As soon as we confirmed that Sheila knew nothing about the $20,000, we contacted an @properties vice president I’ll call Wayne Kelly. He let slip that another couple turned up for a closing that same afternoon, thinking they wired $60,000 to a title company. As I researched the subject, I found this type of wire fraud is common in real-estate transactions. People have wired hundreds of thousands of dollars into bank accounts controlled by criminals.

AVOID BEING A VICTIM: What would I tell someone to do to avoid being a victim? Some states actually require that funds be transferred before closing via wire transfer—ironically, to avoid scams using fake cashier’s checks. When you get wire instructions for your closing, call your closing agent or your real estate attorney to verify those instructions. And use the phone number you’ve been using with them, not a new phone number emailed to you.

Also, absolutely refuse to communicate with your realtor or any other party to the transaction if he or she is using a free email server like gmail. Free email accounts are more vulnerable because they don’t have the firewalls, virus protection and other security of company-issued e-mail accounts. Any real estate company that hasn’t warned its agents is negligent—but the law is sketchy, so that can be hard to prove in court.

If you don’t want to be an inadvertent money launderer (or worse, get scammed yourself), be cautious on dating sites. Anyone can put up a fake photo of a debonair gent or beautiful young woman, and these scammers will spend hours drawing you out and listening to your dreams and schemes. If they profess their love too soon, be suspicious—especially if they’re in a foreign country and claim to have no family.

Some are more patient, though, and will spend months wooing you with intimate conversation. As soon as they ask for money, though, run the other direction.

I’ve tried to find Margaret to learn more about her experience. She’s no longer at her home in Algonquin, and her phone is disconnected. I tracked her down on Facebook and learned she’s moved into a retirement community. I tried sending her a message but got no reply. I’m sure she’s embarrassed, but I bear her no ill will. I just want to share the story so others will be careful.

I’ve had to tell the story to bank officials, our investment adviser (who took care of wiring the funds), and police officers in two states, as well as filing a report with the FBI and Equifax. The worst thing was enduring an interview with an embarrassed representative from a local senior services agency, who was tasked with determining whether I was in full possession of all my faculties.

As I talked to all these people, I learned that variations on wire fraud scams are shockingly common. One wealthy man in the small town where I live lost over $250,000. Fortunately he could afford to lose it, a police officer told me.

Most of us can’t, so be careful.

 

 

The Ghost

By Jacque White Kochak

A ghost has haunted my dreams for more than 30 years. He is evanescent and ephemeral, in the way of dream figures. Unlike most ghosts, however, today he exists somewhere, most likely balding, with a pot belly.

Long ago, I knew him well. His name was Tim—still is, I guess. He was a frat boy with a houseful of Beta brothers all bound for law and medical school. His daddy was a doctor, and the golden boy was on the same track. He had a loving family, with two sisters, a brother…

Read more at purpleclover.com

My brothers were a handful

By Jacque White Kochak

It’s been a scorching Kansas summer day, 103 degrees in the shade in the days before air conditioning. You can’t get in the car wearing shorts because the vinyl seat is too hot, and you can’t walk barefoot on asphalt or cement or you’ll be sorry. If you are out in the country, you’ll see water shimmering where the highway meets the horizon, but you know it’s a mirage.

Better to be outside than indoors, though, because in western Kansas there’s always wind, sending tumbleweeds scuttling down the side of the road. I’m not talking about a timid little breeze, flirting with the treetops. I’m talking wind, always wind, a familiar companion like a lullaby that eases me to sleep at night.


‘My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof.’ 


I’m alone in the backyard. I’ve used a slender tree branch to draw a circle in a patch of dirt beside the sidewalk that leads to the back porch, and I’m sitting inside the circle with my skinny legs crossed. This is my teepee, and I’m an Indian maiden. It’s getting towards suppertime, and Mother is in the kitchen cooking. Probably biscuits with dried beef gravy, because we ate a lot of that in those days.

Daddy is away, as usual, and my sister Kelly and brother Steve must be inside playing. Mother comes out on the screened back porch, pokes her head out the door, and asks, “Jacque, have you seen the twins?”

No, I haven’t, so she shakes her head as she wipes her hands on her apron. “Well, you better look for them. Those boys are going to give me gray hair,” she says.

So I unfold myself from my teepee and gallop across the yard to look behind the old outhouse. I crawl through the hole in the wire fence behind the outhouse and search around the rusty, decrepit farm equipment behind the barn. We are trained to stay away from the ramshackle chicken house and the barn’s interior, so I don’t check there. I don’t figure they’d dare go inside.

Deciding they must not be outside, I move my search indoors. I look upstairs, systematically checking each one of the four bedrooms and their closets. I return to Mother’s tiny kitchen, where Bruce and Brent have been known to race ants across the counter.

“Mama, I can’t find them,” I say tentatively, knowing I should have been watching them.

Consternation etches her pretty face, then anger. I cringe, because I know how my mother’s anger can escalate, culminating in a session with the pink plastic hairbrush, its bristles bent from contact with our bottoms and other tender parts. She’s too worried to waste time on me, though. My brothers are a handful, and there’s no telling where they’ve gotten to.

The mystery is soon solved. The doorbell rings, and a policeman looms in the front door, blocking out the bright late-afternoon sun. Bruce and Brent are in tow, their faces dirty and their bright blue eyes intent as they gaze at my flustered mother. They contentedly lick chocolate ice cream cones, with just as much ice cream dripping onto their t-shirts as makes it into their mouths.

“Mommy, wook!” says Bruce as he shows her his melting ice cream. They are about 3 years old, and their speech is a little hard to understand. In fact, they have their own language between them, a language that nobody else can understand.

The tall, kindly officer explains that the boys turned up at the drive-in restaurant located a block away and across four-lane South Second Avenue. I know he is kindly because, after the bemused owner called the law, the policeman showed up and bought my errant brothers ice cream before he brought them home. I see this as patently unfair, because they got in trouble, tempted fate by crossing a busy street, and received a reward for their daring.

My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof. When they were younger my mother tried attaching them to the clothesline with dog leashes, but they undid the latches.

As teenagers, Bruce and Brent often preferred to sleep on the floor, and they made their own bows and arrows from Osage orange, common on the Great Plains. The big green fruit, bigger than a softball, is known as a hedge apple because the Osage orange, like the cottonwood, is common in the windbreaks that stopped the wind from stripping the fields. The heavy, fine-grained yellow wood is prized for tool handles, fence posts—and bows. In the early 19th century, a good Osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket.

Don’t ask me how my brothers knew this, but they knew a lot of things that didn’t make sense for them to know. Once Brent told me that he and Bruce were reincarnated Indians, and I half believed him. Now, he says he doesn’t remember saying any such thing.

As the oldest child, I was usually nominally in charge when we played in the yard. Once, Kelly and Steve got into a giant ant pile, which left them screaming and crying as the ants stung them. Mother, enraged, demanded to know why I had let them get into the ant pile.

“And why did you get in the ant pile?” she also demanded to know of them. Kelly and Steve told her Bruce and Brent were playing in the ant pile, so she asked them why they would do such a thing.

“The ants are our friends,” the 4-year-olds replied. And the truth is that the ants were their friends, never stinging them—just one more thing I can’t explain about my brothers.

Steve’s last days

I didn’t know my brother was gay until close to the time he died. When AIDS stole his life, I was advised not to tell.


By Jacque White Kochak

When my brother died of AIDS, I was advised not to tell anyone. My adviser was a parent at my son’s school. A well-meaning pediatrician, he was short and round, with glasses and a single tuft of hair on his balding head. I figured he knew what he was talking about, so I took his advice.

I was living in the suburbs of New York City, and the year was 1995. The AIDS epidemic had settled in; at that point, some 500,000 cases had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta…

Read more at PurpleClover.com

Painting by Natalya Kochak

The memory that haunts me

This column by Gillis Morgan was first printed several years ago in The Auburn Villager and won first place for commentary that year in the Alabama Press Association Better Newspaper Contest. I am reprinting the column in honor of Gillis’ receiving a 2016 Auburn Journalism Honors award this month.


By Gillis Morgan

Sometimes I can think of more reasons not to write about a heavy thought or a dark memory, and I have found that not to write about something is simply a way of running away from it.

But it always catches up with you.morgan

So right now I have decided to write about the darkness of a memory I have been running away from for 58 years.


The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes.


It was in June of 1952, about a week or so after my high school graduation from Evergreen High in south Alabama.

My plan was to join the Navy, get the GI Bill and then attend college to study journalism. My father was lobbying for chemical engineering, but we would have more time to think about that after four years in the Navy.

“You’ve got about two weeks before you join the Navy, so you have time to get a job,” Dad said. “Try the bus station. They’re always looking for somebody to pump gas.”

Dad was always saying that “a man without a job is not a man,” so I got the 8-to-midnight shift at the Greyhound bus station pumping gas. A character named Slim was the night manager. He was over six feet tall, lean and wiry, and had tattoos, which back then left a man’s character open for question.

I had been there a week, when about 11 p.m. on a Friday night the bus from Montgomery roared in, air brakes pumping and loaded with passengers. Evergreen served as the rest stop between Montgomery, 94 miles on north on U.S. Highway 31, and Mobile 113 miles south.

As the passengers were unloading to make their way to the station café, I was walking away from the pumps. Slim was standing outside the café door, and I was walking toward him when a young black man got off the bus, stretching and yawning his way to the café door.

I saw Slim reach into his pocket to grip a leather scabbard that held his ticket puncher.

At the black man approached the door, Slim snatched out the scabbard in his right hand and then slapped the young man on the left side of his mouth, and I could hear Slim saying something but I could not make out the words because of the roar of the bus motor.

The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes. As he tried to stand, Slim charged again and slapped at him with the scabbard as the man backed up and began to stumble his way back to the open bus door. He got on the bus. The bus driver and the passengers were still inside the café.

Slim opened the café door and went inside. There was no one else out front.

I looked at the bus, and I turned away. I didn’t check out from my shift. I just started walking home, all the while thinking: “I didn’t do a damn thing.”

All these years, and I still feel guilty.

§

I never told anyone about what happened that night at the bus station—not my folks, not anyone.

After I joined the Navy, went to college, majored in journalism and started working, I never told anyone. Even when I was covering the Selma-to-Montgomery march I never told anyone.

It was only after I came to Auburn in 1977 that I told someone.

This past week was the first time I have ever written about it, and I rewrote it at least three times.

I never saw Slim again. Nor in all my visits to my hometown did anyone mention that night. I don’t know if anyone else knew about it.

And I figured the young man who got attacked then got back on the bus just went on to Mobile or Pensacola. It was 1952, and I don’t think he would have gotten much attention with his story.

Was I scared of what I had seen? Of Slim? I think I was scared, but I didn’t run home that night. I walked.

And after thinking about it while writing about it I think what I felt was mostly shock. And I have always felt guilt and pain. A whole bunch of guilt and pain.

After I decided to send this in to Jacque, my editor, I sent a copy to a friend who grew up in Evergreen but now lives in Huntsville. I asked him if I could include his letter and use his name—James Daniels.

It is a beautiful letter, and it made me feel better. Here is the letter.

§

Gilly: Thanks for that painful, heart-rending story. I know that, like all of us in our younger years in older times, you suffered from shame at your own inaction. But also, as we all did, there was the inertia of the soul that kept us from reacting in accordance with our conscience in black-white relations.

It was just the way we all were, like our parents, like our neighbors, like our friends, like the whole white South…and yes, like the blacks themselves, just bogged in our cultural swamp. As youths in that overwhelming noxious atmosphere of white adult prejudice, we felt the absolute helplessness of any overt response that would be counter to the norm.

I, too, saw acts similar to the Slim incident on a number of occasions, even among my own king. And, of course, I was hypersensitive to the constant lesser incidents, where I did not speak up or express my own evolving sentiments. I don’t excuse myself, Gilly, for not acting, for not standing up for my own conscience.

And, today, I don’t dwell on regrets and self-flagellation for my guilt. Yet, like you, I still can’t erase from memory such childhood failures to protest prejudice. But I find some solace in the fact that I did at times at least raise objection to my parents and some few adults.

And I know that in my adult years I have stood up for my convictions on a number of occasions. Of course, the climate of change and the protection of law had become prevalent by the time I started openly holding my stand.

Gilly, we need never regret nor dwell in self-condemnation for the timidities of our youth. Be proud, good friend, that in the soggy, foggy environment of our birth and childhood that we saw the light of right, anyway, and threaded our way through childhood thickets and found the dry hummocks through swamps of our youth toward the brightness. And that, today, though shadows still fall all around us, we live in the light.

And don’t forget that “the child is father of the man.” And you are today a product of all that you experienced as a child and a youth—the good, the bad, the indifferent. And, be grateful to the Creator for the cards he dealt you. You have played them well, my friend.

Now, my children, my sermon next week will be on sin and all the pitfalls therein!

The Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council presented the annual awards during a luncheon at the AU Hotel and Conference Center on Sept. 9. Also receiving awards were Rick Bragg, David Housel, Philip Marshall and Ken Hare.
Artwork by Natalya Kochak

 

You can go to war, meet your ancestors and even play Indian at the local library

By Jacque White Kochak

(This article first appeared in the Auburn Villager)

I’m a nerd, and proud of it. God bless Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish industrialist and philanthropist whose largesse built more than 2,500 libraries in the U.S., Great Britain and Ireland.

Thanks to Mr. Carnegie, I was able to spend long, hot summer afternoons in the cool, domed Dodge City Public Library, located on the western Kansas plains. My child’s body rarely traveled past the stockyard and feedlot at the edge of town, but my mind was free to explore foreign countries, spend a season with a Bedouin or see the world through the eyes of a French madame. My goal was to read every book in that little library.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica.

And God bless former Auburn University President Ralph Brown Draughon, the moving force behind construction of the Auburn University libraries that bear his name. The libraries—there are several—boast combined collections of more than 2.7 million volumes as well as 2.6 government documents, 2.5 million microforms and some 148,000 maps. The libraries also receive more than 35,000 current periodicals, many available online. And the libraries provide access to more than 227 electronic databases.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica. And this is the place to do it.

I tend to become enamored of a subject and research it thoroughly. Where else can you find the Colonial Records of South Carolina volumes relating to Indian affairs? I have perused the pages of a master’s thesis about the history of the old Drake Infirmary and wrestled with microfilm to read issues of the Opelika Daily News from the early 1900s. You’d be surprised what constituted news in those days.

I’ve even fended off the advances of a 30-something graduate student. I was carrying a volume about South Carolina’s old 96 District, and I guess the fellow—a history student with a passion for the Revolutionary War—thought he’d found a soul mate.

If genealogy is your thing, check out the archives in the basement. The staff was quite helpful when I begged them to find mention of my great-uncle, an early barnstorming pilot, in their collection of aviation memorabilia (unfortunately they weren’t successful).

The building is imposing, parking is difficult and townspeople may feel they’re not welcome. That’s not true. All bibliophiles are the same, if you ask me. Rich or poor, young or old, they’re all seekers.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got someplace to go. James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokees is calling my name.

 

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

This article was first published way back in 2007. I updated it slightly, but it is every bit as relevant today as it was then.


By Jacqueline Kochak

(This article first appeared in The Auburn Villager)

Several years ago, a nonprofit pro-life group from Wichita, Kan., set up professionally designed 18-foot-tall displays covering some 5,000 square feet on Auburn University’s Cater Lawn. Graphic photos of aborted fetuses stopped students in their tracks, sparking some protest.

“I believe everybody has the right to inform people, but I don’t think this is informative,” said Shannon Symuleski, a senior majoring in social work. “When you couple facts with pictures of bloody flesh, you’re not going to get your point across the right way. I’m just out here to show there’s another side. I want to show people that not everybody feels this way.”

Almost no one I know is ‘pro-abortion,’ although many are ‘pro-choice.’ Yet we live in a culture where sex is considered recreation, no more significant than brushing one’s teeth…Is it odious to seek to open a dialogue between opposing groups?

The display, funded by private support, is the brainchild of David Lee, founder and executive director of an organization called Justice for All. Lee says his goal is to get students thinking about what abortion means.

I happened to meet Lee while he was in town. Turns out he was born in Trinity Hospital in Dodge City, Kan., and that’s where I was born. His family is from Minneola, an insignificant speck on the map just south of Dodge. I know the town well. His wife’s family is from another insignificant spot, Kinsley—where my brother lived at the time.

So we talked.

I don’t like people pushing ideology down my throat, and I was at first wary of Lee. I was surprised. He’s something of a scholar. He wasn’t pushy, he wasn’t dogmatic, and he didn’t preach. In fact, he listened.

“I guess a college campus is a good place to ask people to think about abortion,” I said. “But you need to aim this at the young men.”

“That’s why the pictures are so big,” he replied. “Males are visual.”

Several years ago, I wrote a series about date rape on the AU campus. I learned that many young women who leave home for the first time are naive. And some young men are predatory.

“You need to be talking about date rape,” I ventured.

“I know,” Lee said. “We need to be talking about a lot of things. Young men today don’t have enough responsible role models.”

And that got me to thinking.

Almost no one I know is “pro-abortion,” although many are “pro-choice.” Yet we live in a culture where sex is considered recreation, no more significant than brushing one’s teeth. Television and movies portray a world where casual sex is accepted, normal and even glorified, with real passion and meaning removed from the formula.

Is it wrong to suggest that casual sex can have consequences, and that a human life can result? Is it odious to seek to open a dialogue between opposing groups?

“We wanted to educate our fellow students about the reality and truth of abortion. People are pretty ignorant about what really occurs,” said Diane Phelps, a sophomore majoring in history and president of Auburn Students for Life, the group that invited Justice for All to campus.

“We wanted to be able to talk in a reasonable and compassionate manner,” she said. “We knew people would get mad about it. I think it’s worth that. If this exhibit saves one life, it was worth offending someone.”

Lee has told other newspapers that he wanted to bring the kind of discussion he experienced during his college years at the University of Kansas—where I also went to school—to campuses throughout the U.S. When Lee was a student in the early 1970s, KU was wracked by turmoil because of racial tensions and the country’s involvement in Vietnam.

That’s why each panel included a question aimed at pushing students to examine their own beliefs. Outright condemnation was not part of the show.

“We wanted to do this in a compassionate and loving way,” Phelps said. “We are prepared for women who have had abortions being upset and prepared to deal with it in a respectful and compassionate way.”

That’s not how many people saw the display, however.

“They are scaring people out of a choice they have every right to make,” said Lauren Bahr, a senior majoring in social work. “They say they’re educating, but I don’t think they’re here to educate. They’re here to scare people.”

“It’s pretty damn disturbing,” agreed Bryan Andress, a sophomore majoring in hotel and restaurant management.

And maybe that’s the point.