Last Friday, I received a phone call at work from a man who asked me right off the bat, "Are you the person who is sending me threats by email?" He then added: "This is about that video of me naked."
I had no idea what he was talking about. So I asked the man some more questions, and learned his strange story.
It turns out that an online scam artist in Ivory Coast - they're known as brouteurs
there - was trying to impersonate me in order to extort money from gullible Internet users. His operation was rather well-run. A "young woman" contacted the victim through a social network, in this case Badoo.com. After some flirting, she then suggested they continue their conversation via webcam. The victim, who we will call Robert, saw a woman -- who he believed was the one he had been talking to -- appear on the screen and undress in front of the camera (though this may have been just a video recording). Robert, in turn, started taking off his clothes. What he didn't know was that the video from his webcam was being recorded by the scam artist.
At this point, the brouteur could have simply asked for money in exchange for not publishing the video on the Internet. However, this scam is more subtle. To make his threats sound more credible, the fraudster stole someone's identity -- in this case, mine.
Here's the email that "Julien Pain from France 24" sent to Robert, using graphics from the channel's newsletter:
Written in pseudo-legal jargon, the letter writer orders Robert to erase his nude webcam video from the Internet. If he doesn't, says the scam artist, the video would be broadcast on FRANCE 24, which would also sue him in court. (Logic was apparently not a big concern here.) Robert, panicked, replied to the email -- sent from firstname.lastname@example.org
-- and received a reply asking him to call an Ivorian phone number. Robert then called me through FRANCE 24's main line to try to understand what was going on. He gave me the Ivorian phone number, which I promptly called. I asked to talk to "Julien Pain", posing as Robert. Here's the recording of the absurd conversation that followed (in French).
During this conversation, the scam artist says he is indeed Julien Pain, a journalist at FRANCE 24. He then gives a winding explanation as to why, exactly, he contacted me (Robert). He says the video is about to land on the Internet and only he can stop this from happening. He also tells me that, if I don't follow his instructions, the video will be aired on FRANCE 24. He asks me to quickly send him €250 so that he can buy a pre-paid telecommunications card that will somehow erase the video from the servers.
This scam may seem obvious and even absurd. The email is full of spelling mistakes, and why on earth would I, or FRANCE 24, get involved in such a sordid story? Yet it appears to work on some people, those who are gullible or maybe just lonely. For now, it is impossible to know how many others received an email like Robert did, nor how many paid up.
Robert says he contacted the police, who told him that at this point no illegal act had been committed, so he could not file a complaint. For my part, I'm going to file a complaint for identity theft through FRANCE 24's legal department, which has informed me that other journalists from our channel have seen their names used in similar scams. I will, of course, keep readers posted if we manage to identify my alter ego.