Just after noon June 26, as many as 400 friends and colleagues of a Lexington woman received an e-mail with her name attached saying she was robbed of her cash and credit cards while on vacation in the United Kingdom.
A hotel manager wouldn't allow the woman, Liz Epperson, to leave until she settled her bill, the message said.
But Epperson, a social worker at Bluegrass Community Health Center, wasn't in the United Kingdom; she was in Lexington. She had not been robbed. And she didn't send the message.
Someone had hacked into Epperson's personal e-mail account and sent the fraudulent message — a scam that is causing problems for some Kentuckians, according to officials with the Better Business Bureau.
"I'm writing this with tears in my eyes," read the e-mail, which included typographical errors.
"My family and i came down here to wales United Kingdom for a short vacation unfortunately we were mugged at a the park of the hotel where we stayed all cash, credit card on us got stolen including our cell phone, luckily for us we still have our passport with us.
"We've been to the embassy and the police here in wales but they're not helping issues at all but we're having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the bills, I'm freaked out at at the moment.
Epperson said friends who answered the e-mail were told to wire $1,200 to an address in Wales. As far as she knows, no one sent money.
Several friends texted Epperson to ask about the message and found out she wasn't in Wales.
Epperson said she did not know who to contact about the scam.
"I didn't know what to do," she said. "I didn't know where to start."
Google oversees Epperson's e-mail account. When she contacted Google security officials, they told her the hacker appeared to be based in Nigeria. The hacker had made it impossible for her to use her e-mail, but she said Google officials fixed the problem fairly quickly.
As soon as Epperson was able, she sent a message setting the record straight: "Just wanted to let you all know that my e-mail account was hacked into," Epperson wrote. "I'm fine and not in Wales."
Charlie Mattingly, president of the Better Business Bureau that serves Louisville, Southern Indiana and Western Kentucky, put an alert on that agency's Web site June 17 after he received a similar fraudulent e-mail that appeared to be from one of his friends but was not.
Mattingly said he knew his friend was not in London, England, as the message suggested, and called to warn him. Mattingly then began e-mailing back and forth with the scammer who told him to wire $2,400 to England and expressed impatience that Mattingly didn't send money quickly.
Mattingly's friend had a Yahoo e-mail account, and Yahoo's security team quickly addressed the problem.
"It wasn't long before the scammers lost use of my friend's e-mail account," Mattingly said.
Mattingly said no money was actually sent as a result of the e-mail.
Heather Clary, communications director at the Better Business Bureau of Central and Eastern Kentucky, said her organization also has received complaints about the scam. She suggests that anyone who gets an unusual request via e-mail should check it out before taking action.
"If it sounds outlandish, they might want to double check and do a little more homework," Clary said.
In the warning on his organization's Web site, Mattingly encouraged people not to wire money unless they know the person to whom they are wiring the money and "have very high trust in this person."
"Verify that the friend will in fact receive the money you are wiring," Mattingly said. "Unless you can talk to your friend by phone and have complete confidence that the person is actually your friend, don't wire the money."
Clary and Mattingly said the e-mail scam is similar to a scam targeting grandparents for which Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway recently issued a warning.
Conway's Office of Consumer Protection received a complaint from a Kentucky consumer who recently lost $6,000 after falling victim to a ploy in which a scammer called a grandparent pretending to be a grandchild in trouble, according to a June release from Conway's office.