It Starts Out Being Funny
November 1, 2020
It Starts Out Being Funny. Then It Isn't.
One day in the middle of last month I got a couple of odd phone calls. They were from people I knew so that wasn't odd, but they were asking if I was all right and there wasn't any particular reason why I wouldn't have been. So that was odd.
"Why do you ask?" I said.
Well, they said, it's that email I got from you.
I had not yet, that day, sent a single email to anyone so I was puzzled.
Then some friends and family got in touch and said pretty much the same thing, my two, very much adult, kids summing it up nicely: "Dad's been hacked!"
Apparently "I" had sent out an email stating that I had an urgent need and that, if they received that email, to let me know. Those who did that then got a second email saying that I needed to get some iTunes gift cards for a niece but that, since I was traveling and didn't have access to reliable WiFi, I wasn't able to get them myself. So if you would buy them and forward them to me I'll reimburse you later. Hokey as hell and didn't make much sense.
I've had computer crashes before although never a hack, but the procedure is pretty much the same. Where to begin? is usually the first question. Who got that email? emerged pretty quickly.
First (there's a bit of a tutorial in what follows), I went into my antivirus program and did a full system scan to see if I had any malware, viruses or other oddities. The scan showed that everything was okay.
Then I went into my Hotmail program and changed the password. That's critical since it was by getting my password in the first place (who knows how – maybe I slipped up somewhere) that they were able to get into my contact lists. You can't undo the damage done, but the hacker could no longer get into my Hotmail program.
Out of curiosity then I opened up my contact list. That list gets built over a long period of time and you naturally forget who is in there. I guess I was just curious to see how many long-forgotten people had gotten a weird email from an equally long-forgotten G.K. Wuori.
No problem There was no list. My hacker had not only copied my list to send his silly emails, he'd stolen it. That's the moment when your stomach sinks down to your shoes. Of course a lot of the lost contacts weren't terribly important – names and addresses gathered years ago that I hadn't contacted in an equally long time, editors of defunct journals, writers who'd submitted work to me when I edited a literary magazine (that magazine now defunct), merchants from venues I could revisit with a simple search, and so on. They'd also taken my Cold Iron mailing list but, fortunately, that was saved offline.
As soon as I realized that the list could gradually be rebuilt, another anomaly presented itself, this one a real puzzler and terribly worrisome: I wasn't receiving any emails. I don't really get that many but, normally, on a given day, I'll receive between twenty and thirty – some of them meaningful, some of them junk.
All I had in my inbox, though, was one email from the day before the hack. First, I sent a message from another email account I have to the Hotmail account. Nothing. Then I called my son and asked him to send me an email. Ironically, he said he'd just sent me one – something he thought I'd find interesting. Got nothing, I said.
Time to jump down the rabbit hole. That's my shorthand for getting into Microsoft's (the owner of Hotmail) help features. It can be dizzying.
It started out with a click on "I've been hacked." Easy enough except that it opened up about a dozen options. I began wandering – a click here, a click there, clicks within clicks within clicks. Finally I got to one that had something to do with options: how to organize your email, accessibility, connectivity, rules, etc.
Nothing seemed promising until I clicked on Rules. Apparently you can write your own rules for how your email is sorted. You could, for example, write a rule that says that all email from Donald Trump goes directly into a Junk Mail folder instead of your Inbox. Easy enough.
And there it was. My hacker had written a rule directing that all email to my address go not into my Inbox but into a folder I have labeled Wester (my son's name and where I store his emails). I have no idea what purpose the hacker had in mind. Perhaps he thought that if I didn't think I was getting any emails I would close my account and thus …? I have no idea, but I had sixty-five fresh emails in his folder that I promptly moved to my Inbox.
I deleted that rule and, lo and behold, everything was back to normal.
By the way, at one point during my rabbit hole searching I was able to discover where my hack had originated from.
G. K. Wuori © 2020
Photoillustration by the author