It’s not only at the lofty level of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and the Leveson inquiry, whose devastating strictures on the press were announced on Thursday, that crime is rampant in the ether. The usual email address is missing from the end of this column because humble hacks are also victims of hackers.
Even while writing this, I am probably being robbed left, right and centre by criminals who have invaded and seized my Yahoo and Hotmail accounts. I cannot access either. Mail sent to them doesn’t reach me. It falls into criminal hands.
A telephone call from Sydney was the first intimation of burglary, politely called hacking. My next caller, a writer with whom I worked as a reporter in Stockport in the north of England 54 years ago, sounded very annoyed. “You didn’t say a word about going to Spain,” he complained, “when we met the day before yesterday!” He was justly piqued. I had taken the train from Euston and he had met me in his car at Manchester’s Piccadilly station, driven me round the town on a nostalgic trip and taken me to the newly developed wonder of Salford Quays with its centre devoted to the artist L S Lowry, formidable War Museum (where we lunched), the new flats by the waterside and huge BBC offices. Then he drove me back to Piccadilly for the train to London. How could I have been so secretive during all those chatting hours?
Our friendly English landlord was vexed for another reason. He shrewdly telephoned my wife who sensed the relief under his expressions of concern when she assured him that, far from traipsing off to Spain, I had been in England all along. That meant I hadn’t done a flit without paying the rent. She invited him round, and we felt his confidence surging back as he saw that everything in the flat – furniture, carpets, pictures, bedding and all the cutlery and crockery – was in its place. If we had disappeared to Spain, we might also have cleaned out all his possessions.
He had downloaded and printed the cause of the furore. It was a message above my name that I reproduce below with its eccentricities of punctuation and syntax unchanged:
“I hope this reaches you on time..I’m sorry for this emergency and for not informing you about my urgent trip to Spain but I just have to let you know my present predicament. Everything was fine until I was robbed on my way back to the hotel, I wasn’t hurt but I lost my money, bank cards, mobile phone and my bag in the course of this attack. Immediately contacted my bank in order to block my cards and also made a report at the nearest police station. I’ve been to the embassy and they are helping me with my documentation so i can fly out but I’m urgently in need of some money to pay for my hotel bills and my flight ticket home, will definitely REFUND as soon as I get back home.
“Kindly let me know if you would be able to help me out. I am so worried.
“Waiting to hear back from you.”
He explained the plight of British landlords whom neither the police nor the courts lift a finger to help. If a tenant disappears, they merely serve notices at the abandoned tenanted address unless the landlord tracks down the absconder. He had once tried to enlist the help of London’s citizens’ consumer council but was rebuffed with the official’s opening comment, “We must warn you that as a matter of principle, our sympathies are with the tenant.”
Calls flooded in from Delhi and Singapore, remote Cornwall and several from here in London. Many were convinced I was stranded penniless in Spain. Some recognised an old trick. Others knew the language wasn’t mine. “The Nigerians have got at you!” exclaimed one, Nigerians having a bad reputation in Britain for financial jugglery. A journalist in Nicosia suggested facetiously I demand a share of the loot.
But being hacked is no laughing matter. It means your private files and correspondence are exposed to the enemy. You are at the mercy of unscrupulous cheats and swindlers. Their very anonymity makes them more dangerous and you more vulnerable.
Some of my friends received the fraudulent message from my Yahoo address, some from Hotmail. The same crook controls both. They ought to be rescued and the thieves punished. But where’s the cyberpolice to enforce any law?