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Originally published Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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'Stranded traveler' scam can swindle family, friends

Debbie Laramie wasn't robbed in England. She was hacked while she was at home in Michigan — a victim of the "stranded traveler" online scam that sends out pleas for money.

Detroit Free Press

American "tourist" Debbie Laramie wasn't robbed in England.

She was hacked online — a victim of the stranded-traveler scam that is sweeping cyberspace — while in her home state of Michigan.

Bad guys hacked into Laramie's Facebook and Yahoo accounts this summer. They stole her online identity, address book, changed her passwords, then sent out a message using her e-mail address:

"I'm writing this with tears in my eyes. We came down here to England for a short vacation and we got mugged at gunpoint last night, at the park of the hotel where we lodged. All cash, credit cards and cell were stolen from us ... The hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the hotel bills, we are freaked out at the moment ... "

The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center issued a warning last month to Americans about the stranded-traveler scam. But it was too late for Laramie.

The e-mail sent in her name went on: "... lend me the sum of $1750.00 so we can settle the hotel bills and get a return ticket back home. Please do me this great help and I promise to refund the money as soon as I get back home. I look forward to your positive response, so I can send you the details you need to send the money to me through Western Union."

Read the e-mail closely, and you notice the weird English phrase — "do me this great help" — but some friends only noticed that the plea came from Laramie's own e-mail address.

Laramie estimates the message went to at least 270 people, including her mayor, doctor, kids' teachers and entire high school class reunion list. She found out she'd been hacked when her doctor called to ask if she was OK.

She then realized she was locked out of her Yahoo and Facebook accounts and that somebody else was pretending to be her.

For the next week, her phone kept ringing from long-lost friends, colleagues and family asking if she really needed financial help. Even a cash-strapped friend called saying, "I don't know how, but I will get you your money."

It took wrangling to get Yahoo and Facebook to restore her access. Then she found that her entire contact list had been erased, Facebook page changed and e-mails evaporated.

"I felt like somebody broke into my house," she says. On the other hand, the outpouring of from friends ready to help if she actually was stranded in England made her grateful. "The people who know me know I've never been to Europe. I am only up at my cottage ... "

To avoid being a victim of this scam, protect your passwords on e-mail and social media accounts. If you get an e-mail like this, call your friend or message back asking a question only your real friend would know. Scam victims should file an FBI complaint at www.ic3.gov.

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