It's called the "emergency scam" because its victims are typically asked to wire money to assist some friend or family member in trouble.
This month, the Arcadia Police Department issued a warning that local seniors have been receiving calls from someone claiming to be a relative who needs bail money to get out of the slammer. The calls, needless to say, are bogus.
But more often than not, the emergency scam is perpetrated online, usually after someone's e-mail or Facebook account has been hacked. Urgent (and fraudulent) messages are sent to that person's contacts pleading for some fast cash.
I received just such an e-mail the other day. It was from my 67-year-old stepmom, Judy, who had apparently run into trouble while on a trip to London.
The message said she "got mugged on my way to the hotel and my money, credit cards, phone and other valuable things were taken off me at gun point."
All she needed was $1,800 to pay her hotel bill and return home.
The e-mail, of course, was a sham, even though it had been sent from Judy's actual MSN account and included her actual Florida address and phone number.
She told me she hasn't been to London recently and isn't facing any financial distress. But I was lucky enough to be able to reach her and find this out for myself.
Another recipient of the e-mail, West L.A. property manager Fred Droesch, wasn't as fortunate.
"Any time the Internet says you should send money, you should be suspicious," he told me. "But because the e-mail seemed urgent, I dropped everything."
Droesch, 76, said he tried to reach Judy but couldn't find her at any of her numbers. So he didn't hesitate. He said he went immediately to a Western Union office and wired $1,800 to London.
"There are only two people I would do this for," Droesch said. "Your stepmother is one of them. If she was in trouble, I was going to help."
Droesch finally reached Judy later that day. When he learned that he'd been tricked, he immediately called Western Union and canceled his transaction, and got his money back the next day.
How do things like this happen? Tech experts say the proliferation of Web-based e-mail accounts and social-network sites like Facebook offer easy pickings to hackers keen on passing themselves off as someone else.
In Judy's case, the hacker took control of her MSN account and changed the password so Judy wouldn't be able to send any e-mails debunking the scam. Then he sent his pleas for help to the more than 500 people in her online address book.
"It's horrible," Judy said. "I've heard you feel violated when something like this happens. It's true. I never believed something like this would happen to me."
At this point, it looks like the scammer has gotten nothing. Judy said MSN was helpful in restoring access to her e-mail, and she's gratified by the outpouring of concern from friends and family for her welfare.
The Federal Trade Commission says the number of complaints received about the emergency scam is rising. It's a particularly effective ploy, the agency says, because an appeal from a close friend or loved one can cause people to ignore their natural suspicions.
If you receive such a call or e-mail, here's what you should do:
•First, try to verify the caller's or sender's identity by asking a personal question that a stranger wouldn't be able to answer.
•Don't act rashly. Try to call the person back on a known number. If you can't reach him or her, try to connect with another family member, even if you've been told to keep things secret.
•If you still can't confirm the authenticity of the call or e-mail, contact the police. They'll know if there's a scam going around in a particular area.
•Most importantly, don't wire any money until you're certain the call for help is legit. If you haven't be able to confirm it's the real deal, it probably isn't.
And if you do get hustled into sending cash, act fast and try to get your money back before the scammer gets his hands on it. This worked for Droesch.
"I feel pretty stupid," he said. "But I can say this: It was an adventure."
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org