'Hitman' e-mails rattle recipients

FBI says scam targets professionals to extort money from them

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When Mick Wolcott was skimming through e-mails on his cell phone the Friday before Christmas, he found a disturbing message.

In-box Threat
The text of the e-mail message Dr. Mike Dunn, a Castle Shannon dentist, received last week follows. Law enforcement authorities say it is similar to others going around the country.

Subj: Be safe in this new year
Date: 1/2/2007 4:40:05 A.M. Eastern Standard Time
From: unknownmission@unknownmission.com
Reply to: missionstocomplete@yahoo.ie

Good day,

I want you to read this message very carefully, and keep the secret with you till further notice, You have no need of knowing who i am, where am from, till i make out a space for us to see, i have being paid $50,000.00 in advance to terminate you with some reasons listed to me by my employers, its one i believe you call a friend, i have followed you closely for one week and three days now and have seen that you are innocent of the accusation, Do not contact the police or F.B.I. or try to send a copy of this to them, because if you do i will know, and might be pushed to do what i have being paid to do, beside, this is the first time I turned out to be a betrayer in my job.

Now, listen, i will arrange for us to see face to face but before that i need the amount of $80,000.00 and you will have nothing to be afraid of. I will be coming to see you in your office or home determine where you wish we meet, do not set any camera to cover us or set up any tape to record our conversation, my employer is in my control now, You will need to pay $20,000.00 to the account i will provide for you, before we will set our first meeting, after you have make the first advance payment to the account, i will give you the tape that contains his request for me to terminate you, which will be enough evidence for you to take him to court (if you wish to), then the balance will be paid later.

You don't need my phone contact for now till am assured you are ready to comply good.

Lucky You.

It said a $50,000 hit had been put out on him. But the sender said he'd be willing to forgo his orders to "terminate" him, if Mr. Wolcott paid $80,000.

Since he was reading the message on his phone, Mr. Wolcott couldn't figure out where it had come from or to which of his e-mail addresses it had been sent. So he rushed from his car dealership in Robinson to his home in McCandless, logged on to his computer there and found that the message had been sent to his personal account.

Clearly upset, he immediately left his house and sped to the McCandless police department.

"I flew up [Interstate] 79," he said. "I was hoping somebody would pull me over, so I could get there faster."

What Mr. Wolcott and at least a few others in the region have received over the past several weeks is another in a long line of e-mail scams, but none has been quite as dramatic as this approach..

Special Agent Bill Shore, supervisor of the FBI's computer crimes squad in Pittsburgh, said this case looks a lot like "spear phishing," where scammers target a specific group of people. In this case, Agent Shore said, the people who have received the e-mails are professionals, and include several dentists.

He suspects whoever sent the e-mails had access to a database of dentists and targeted them.

The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center in Fairmont, W.Va., received reports about this particular scam in early December from people in New Orleans and Atlanta.

Agent Shore thinks it was reported pretty quickly here in Pittsburgh, and it's the first time such a scam has included death threats.

Anyone who receives that kind of message will at least hesitate for a moment, Agent Shore said.

"You think," he said, " 'What did I get into? What do I gotta do to get out of this?' "

But then, he continued, if you look closer, the broken English in the body of the e-mail is a pretty quick giveaway that it's a scam.

And that's what Dr. John Sartorio, of Mt. Lebanon, thought when he read the one he received.

"If I were single, I would have deleted it, laughed about it and thought nothing more of it," he said.

But his wife was concerned and urged him to contact the police.

"With kids, you always want to be more safe than sorry," he said.

For Mr. Wolcott, it was the subject line that got his attention: "Merry X-mas, and stay alive."

"Absolutely, I took it seriously for about four days," he said.

He was so concerned that he wouldn't allow anyone in his family to go out in public with him until he'd been reassured it was nothing more than a scam.

Dr. Mike Dunn, a dentist who practices in Castle Shannon, received his e-mail in his personal America Online account on Jan. 2. The subject line on his read: "Be safe in this new year."

He's used to receiving messages that claim to be from royalty in Nigeria seeking money, or from others who claim he's won the lottery. But this one, he said, was different.

"This one kind of just freaked me out because it talked about someone wanting to kill me," he said. "I didn't have a real fear, but it made me mad."

He immediately called police in Mt. Lebanon, where he lives, who then contacted the FBI.

"I probably over-reacted a little bit," he said.

But Agent Shore disagrees. Each instance of an e-mail scam should be reported, because that allows investigators to compile the information and trace any patterns that emerge.

In this instance, it appears the e-mails originated in Moscow.

Mr. Wolcott was particularly bothered that the message sender knew his name. But Agent Shore said that's not unusual, and it's rather simple to write a program that will capture the recipients' names and include them in the mass mailing.

To report a questionable e-mail, or online scam, go to www.ic3.gov and click on "file a complaint."

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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