How to Help a Friend Whose Email Has Been Hacked to Send Scams

Originally published at: How to Help a Friend Whose Email Has Been Hacked to Send Scams - TidBITS

After receiving three separate scam solicitations from acquaintances whose email accounts had been taken over by scammers, Adam Engst explains how the scam works and what you can do to protect yourself and help others who have been hacked.

I got one of these a month ago from an aunt I haven’t communicated with in years. She has a Yahoo email address, but the reply-to address on the original email was a slightly altered version of her username, at gmail (think vs.

I wrote her separately and she confirmed she was aware she’d been hacked. Another relative helped her change her password, but she also spent about an hour and a half on the phone with Yahoo support. I’m not sure what she did with them.

I will add I first saw the email on my iPhone. It got me wondering, but other than the Amazon reference it was entirely plausible that she was reaching out to me - so I left it until I could open it on my computer and examine it more closely. That’s when I saw the reply-to change. If I’d just hit “reply” on the original, I believe I would have seen her first and last name in the “To:” field, and therefore no opportunity to notice the redirection.

We’ve found that the scammer will often setup a rule in the hacked mail account to redirect the email from the person they are scamming - which would explain why your friend couldn’t see the messages. They may also keep them in another folder in the hacked account. So along with password changes, we recommend people log into their accounts via webmail and look for rules that might also keep the scam alive even after a pw change.


Thanks, Adam. Good illustration of the scam, and these are fun to read at least.

You mentioned a scammer seemingly continuing to have access after a password change. I wonder if it’s helpful to suggest folks try to cancel current sessions along with changing the password? For example, Google/gmail has a “Your Devices” section where you can “log out” of specific devices or note if they are unrecognized. This increases the complexity of responding to a scam/hack, and may not be that helpful, but I would try it if I thought someone has gained password access. Thoughts?


I dislike that Apple makes it complicated to see senders’ real address on the iPhone, but it is possible.

  1. Click on the name in the From: field.
  2. Click once more.
  3. The mail address will be listed as Other.

Excellent advice!

I think it’s a good idea, but it strikes me as quite difficult to explain to someone who’s likely non-technical enough to get hacked. Especially because it will be different for every provider. I figured that, whoever they are, may not have even had that feature, such that when my friend changed his password (which I think he did, but don’t really know), it didn’t kick the hacker out.

Yes, of course! But the sneaky part was that the “From” address was her legitimate address. It was the “Reply To” address that was different. If you hit reply and then look at the “To” address, you can see that.

But at the time I didn’t know if it was legitimately from her (hacked) account or if it had somehow been spoofed so I set it aside to look at the headers on my computer. I saw it had come from her address through Yahoo’s servers.

Because I know enough and I was wondering what the scam was, I looked at the reply-to header and caught the difference.

i mainly posted this as a cautionary tale to be extra careful if something tingles your Spidey senses.


A friend of mine got hacked and I (and many others) got a similar email purporting to be from her and asking for a favour. However, this case is a little more interesting, in that she is known for using a particular phrase in her email sign-off. That phrase appeared in the first message I received, which made it seem like it really might have come from her … but I quickly realized that it was not legitimate.

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It’s also worthwhile investigating whether or not their email service supports application passwords that bypass two-factor authentication (and future password changes.) I just helped someone clean up after an email compromise on AOL (I know…) and was equally surprised to find that AOL had instituted app passwords, given their demographic, and unsurprised that the scammer had taken advantage of this to give themselves a nearly invisible back door to the account.

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Great article, and god advice from all… I use Mail as my email program, and the suggestion to “email all your contacts” struck me as, well, difficult. I haven’t done it before, and a have a LOT of email contacts… Any tutorial to make it easier, before I ask to help me out?

I was encouraged to see that our local Walgreens had a large sign in the gift card section that warned people not to buy cards under dubious circumstances.

Our church gets targeted regularly. Someone creates an email in our preacher’s name and contacts members, asking for gift cards. One woman fell for it, but we caught her in time and Walmart refunded her money.


Sounds like it might be something she had coded into an automatic signature, such that the scammer’s message picked it up automatically.

You noticed the hand-waving there? :-) My hope is that the sort of people who tend to have their email accounts compromised due to weak passwords aren’t prolific users of email, such that they would have relatively few contacts. When Vern, my second example, sent that email to his contacts, I noted that there were 139 of them. So a lot, but not an insane number.

Hacked emails using mailing lists ?

Indirectly related to Adam’s case, I have had several cases with mailing lists recently, e.g. from scientific journals that send out announcements of newly published articles. The weird thing is that the links embedded in announcements didn’t link to the publisher’s web site as usual but to some advertisements completely unrelated to the topic. So I am not sure if someone hacked the publishers site or something else happened. For instance, this title

Recent mitochondrial lineage extinction in the critically endangered Javan rhinoceros.

linked to
Email Marketing Software…
which redirected to[relayAttr…
(both links shortened). The correct link is this (found on the website):

I don’t even know how this would benefit a scammer as these journals are rather esoteric and won’t generate much traffic. But mailing lists could target much larger numbers of people, obviously.

I have heard that scientists and academics are often targeted with scams that promise to get them published in respected journals, or promising an opportunity to get published in a brand new journal that will be published by a respected academic institution. But this one clearly wasn’t targeted correctly. It doesn’t cost the scammer anything to send stuff to a target, and the more shots they fire increases the chance they will eventually hit some bulls’ eyes. Publications are a plus for many employed in scientific fields.

My 2 cents:

First, it IS possible your friend’s email account HAS been compromised, it’s also extremely rare: generally speaking, the “sender’s” email has NOT been “hacked” and changing passwords won’t do anything to stop this nonsense (altho there’s nothing wrong with making that change.) Email addresses are “harvested” (usually by robot/crawlers) and the “From” address is taken from the lists of these addresses, which are sold on the dark-web. Setting an email to appear to be from someone else is trivial, and fully-sutomated.

What’s interesting in most of these emails is how the additional “reality” details are harvested. Such details are often harvested from social media accounts. Another way is to hit the reply button. That reply lets the crook know you are “on the hook” and sends along additional useful email information (including your sig.) That is why you should NEVER reply to an email unless you KNOW it’s legit.

Tons of personal information about all of us is already freely available on the internet. Billions of bytes have come from banks, credit agencies, stores that HAVE been hacked. If one of those released your social security number to the dark web, you’re in a LOT of trouble. In fact, on the “light web” visit a “reputation” site. The will sell anyone more detail about you than you can imagine: your family members names, ages, occupations, schooling, workplace; the names of all your neighbors within a 1/2 mile radius, names of other relatives and your friends; whether you or they have financial problems or criminal complaints. Whether you have a mortgage or rent, how much is owed, all about your car and car loan; where you last lived… the list goes on and on.

Then, whether acquired legitimately, or via the dark web, using that information to provide a lot of “reality” details for what is called “spear phishing” emails. That seems to be what’s actually being discussed here. It’s very effective. I’ve gotten emails from people I have not seen in decades, with lots of personal information that made the email credible to me… but his email account was NOT hacked. The info was assembled by using bits paid for from the above, and a bit of social engineering.

Please note that I’m NOT saying your friends email account -wasn’t- hacked. It’s possible… it’s just not very likely. There are easier, less time-consuming and more profitable ways for the crooks to assemble the needed data.

What is really going on out there in the wild-west of the internet is non-trivial.

Here’s a link to a good starter explanation:

And to check your own email and passwords are compromised:

(One of the best uses of haveibeenpwned is that it’s integrated into 1Password ! Good thinking, that…)


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A good point, @tracy, and I should have checked that fact while writing the article. I just went back and looked at the headers of each of the three messages, and I can confirm that all three were sent using the mailservers of the accounts in question (Windstream and Yahoo). That doesn’t necessarily mean that the accounts were hacked, but it’s certainly suggestive of that fact.

My understanding is that spoofing mail in such a way that evades all the SPF/DKIM sort of technologies is reasonably hard these days. I haven’t tried doing it in many years (I still fondly remember an April Fools prank that involved spoofing email from a friend to a running club mailing list we were both on), but even then, I couldn’t do it as completely as was possible back in the day.

I’m one of the the techie-ist in a group of 300 people mostly in their 70s to 90s. We see these hacks a lot, and in my experience usually their account HAS been hacked. For instance, in an AOL account, a rule has been created to move all incoming mail to deleted mail. Or the last access to the account was from Nigeria. It is important to check these things, and to check for any authorized apps or devices and delete those points of access.

We’re also associated with CUNY and required to have CUNY email accounts. CUNY requires a password reset every three months (which is silly). But even worse, their directory must be publicly accessible, because there are frequent phishing efforts through phony emails stating that it is time to reset your password and giving a bogus link.

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You say none of your friends would have had trouble if their passwords were strong and unique. But in most of the cases I see, the user responded to scam text message or email about fixing a problem of some kind and basically handed their password to the scammer. In one case of my neighbor (age 90) responded to a pop up on his computer offering to help him fix a problem he didn’t know he had. After an hour together with the guy in his system, he’d even signed into his investment account. Luckily we were able to fix things in time.

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Ouch. Yeah, if the user is going to hand the password over to the hacker, the strength of the password won’t make any difference at all. 2FA might help, but even then, if the user is facilitating entry by the hacker, all bets are off.

The internet is a big place and sending scam messages costs next to nothing. All it takes is one person to fall for the scam and the bad guy made money. Sending to a small list with a high click rate - thats just easy ROI.