"Hi. Just writing to let you know my trip to Manila, Philippines with my family has been a mess…I need you to loan me some money. I'll refund it to you as soon as I arrive home."
That is the kind of fake e-mail thousands of Americans get every year. It appears to come from a friend, but is actually from a con man half a world away. Most people delete them.
When a "Nightline" producer received one of these emails, she decided to hit reply. That took us on a journey half way around the world and inside one of the most common online scams around. It's called "the stranded traveler" scam and it costs victims who fall for it million of dollars every year.
The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, based in West Virginia, has about 150,000 "stranded traveler" complaints on file. The phony emails often use the subject line, "I'm writing with tears in my eyes." Special Agent Charles Pavelites showed us how the identical email has been received from Madrid, Spain, London, England and, yes, Manila in the Phillippines. "They're all basically the same story, they were out of the country, they've been robbed and they need assistance now," Pavelites said. "This is a prefab…it's a form letter for a criminal." "
The email our producer received asked for nearly $2,000 and it looked like it had been sent from an acquaintance named Susan Zador. But when we checked in with the real Susan, we found out she was not in the Philippines and her email account had been hacked.
Zador's son Andy said every contact in his mother's email address book, hundreds of people, received the same alarming message.
"It's pretty disheartening to think that people are that money-hungry that they'll just send it out to whoever they think they can get the most money from," he said.
Zador's friend Mary Blackwell said she sent $300 and then learned it was a scam.
"I went through the roof. I was so upset," she said. "Not because I sent the money or anything like that, but it was because my heart was broken for Susan."
The person pretending to be Susan Zador claimed over email that he was traveling with somebody named Richard Kamenitzer and to wire the money to Richard in Manila. When "Nightline" tracked down the real Kamenitzer, a professor in Virginia, he said he had no idea who Susan Zador was, but that his email had also been hacked the same day as hers. Kamenitzer said he received several emails from worried friends. The hackers blocked Kamenitzer's access to his own address book, so he had no easy way to alert his friends to the scam.
"I had had 4,036 contacts in my address book none of which were available to me," he said. "Everything was lost."
In "Nightline's" case, instead of sending the nearly $2,000 that our new pen pal had requested, we only sent $20. Within hours, the con artist wrote back and complained.
"You should have told me you never had any money," he said. Then he had a creative suggestion. "I think you can also have the money wired with the use of your credit card."
"Nightline" followed the email trail to the Philippines, where a Western Union agent said a suspected scammer has come into his shop to cash in.
"The first time I met this guy, he claimed...$4,000 in two transactions," the agent said. "When he claimed it, he showed his... ID, which was his driver's license."