My phone rang just as I reached home last Monday. I parked my car and answered. It was my cousin, whom I usually speak to about four times each year. He sounded quite serious.
‘Tim, are you ok? You aren’t giving a lecture or anything, are you?’
‘No, I’ve just got home.’
‘Are you sitting down?’
‘Yes, I’m in my car.’ I was getting worried now; my cousin is a doctor and my mother has a heart condition. Had anything happened? Then he said something really weird.
‘You’re not in Spain, then?’
‘No, of course not.’ (I’ve never been to Spain)
‘Ok. Well, here’s the thing. I’ve just had an email from you, saying that you’re in Spain with a cousin who needs an urgent kidney transplant, and asking for £1,000 to help get him home. Or her.’ (My cousin is very politically correct) ‘So I think your email has been hacked.’
‘Oh dear,’ I groaned. ‘Well, thank you for telling me.’
So began a nightmare evening. As soon as I got indoors I was phoned by my secretary, followed by my sister, another cousin, my daughter, a friend in Scotland whom I hadn’t met for years, another cousin, an editor, three more friends, and so on and on. The spammer, it seemed, had sent the same begging email to every single person in my address book. I hope none of them fell for it; my second cousin, a generous fellow, said he had actually started to respond before noticing that the email address he was responding to was similar to mine but differed by a single letter. Cunning! I suppose these criminal scams work from time to time, often enough to make it worth while.
But what these scams also do is cause endless irritation and nuisance. I immediately phoned aol, my internet service provider, and spent a long time – and quite a lot of money, no doubt – on the phone to a call centre in India. The helpful young graduates there told me to change my password, which I did; and I also sent an email to everyone on my address book explaining what had happened and apologising for the inconvenience. Then I poured a glass of wine, sat back and thought: ‘That’s sorted, then.’
Not a bit of it. Later that evening I noticed that I was no longer receiving emails, and a friend in the USA emailed me on a different googlemail account to say that her emails to me on the aol account were being bounced. So back on the phone to India, where the poor call centre operatives were still working at three and four a.m. in their morning. Eventually, after many failed experiments and a lot of listening to muzak, a supervisor informed me of something that none of his operatives knew, apparently. It seems that because I – that is, my account – had sent out lots of spam emails, this account had been automatically frozen, and neither he nor anyone else could do anything about it. I would just have to wait. It would come back in 48 hours. Probably.
That was five days ago. 240 hours and counting. (I’m counting, anyway – not so sure about aol)
So if anyone has sent me an email and is still waiting for a response, all I can do is apologise and offer this explanation.
And how should we punish spammers? Shoot them? Obviously. Mince them up and feed them to the dogs? Nice thought. But sadly, we have to catch them first.