Scammers ‘Play’ with local officials’ emails

County elected official’s email gets hacked, but no information is compromised

TULARE COUNTY – Email is one of the most common ways hackers are able to take advantage of scamming individuals, unfortunately two elected officials’ emails were hacked earlier this week.

On Jan. 9, two members of The Sun-Gazette staff received emails from county elected officials indicating suspicion of fraud. One individual serves on the Tulare County Board of Education while the other, Terry Sayer, serves on Tulare’s City Council. One scam involved asking the email recipient to purchase Google Play store gift cards, while the other involved inquiring about the recipient’s Amazon account. Fortunately, both hacked emails were detected and taken care of without apparent negative consequences.

According to the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department public information office, this type of Google Play gift card scam is one they have not seen or had reports of. Typically, more common scams in the area are those involving individuals who impersonate law enforcement via phone or email. According to Ashley Schwarm with the sheriff’s office, the impersonators will “claim the victim needs to pay some sort of fine to avoid jail time.” 

However, according to Clayton Alexander, communications specialist with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) in Fresno, scams involving gift cards have become increasingly more popular. 

It’s unfortunate, but a lot of scammers will use these sorts of tactics,” Alexander said. “One of the issues with things like Google Play gift card [scams], or pretty much any type of gift card [scam] is that they’re relatively untraceable, which is why [the hackers] favor them so much.”

The board member, who chose to stay anonymous, said the hacker gained access to their account after opening what looked like a legitimate email from AT&T explaining the need to re-up his contract. The board member no longer subscribes to AT&T and currently has a contract with Comcast, but because there was some history and conflicting information with the business, it caught their attention.

In this particular situation, the hacker used the board member’s personal email account to ask a Sun-Gazette reporter to purchase Google Play Store gift cards for his niece. The email read that she had recently had open heart surgery and the hacker claimed to be in a “cottage” elsewhere and unable to purchase the gift cards online. Google Play is the equivalent to Apple’s app store. With a Google Play card you are able to purchase things like apps, books, movies, news and other subscriptions.

Alexander said the hackers typically use emotional appeal. The hacker began by asking if the recipient had a minute to talk, it then developed into asking for a favor. The email looked like this:

Actually, I need to get a GOOGLE PLAY GIFT CARDS for my Niece who had Heart operation some days ago. She had lost both parents to the disease (COVID-19). It’s her Birthday gift, but I can’t do this right now because I am presently in a cottage and I won’t be home till next week. This method is neither graceful! Or fast!, and I tried purchasing online but unfortunately no luck with that. Can you get it from any store around you? I will reimburse you with the money spent. kindly let me know if you can handle this so I can tell you the amount and how to get it to me.”

When the Sun-Gazette reporter noticed redflags about the email, he sent a separate email to a different email account for the board member, confirming the sender was in fact being legitimate. However, the hacker had access to that email address and continued the impersonation.  

“Through that email account, [the hacker] might find important information such as bank statements, and other things like that, which obviously can have some vital information and can be used for identity theft in the future,” Alexander said.

The individual who was hacked became aware of the situation after receiving several calls inquiring about the strange emails. The board member quickly changed their password before any information was stolen, as far as they could tell.  

Alexander said changing the password is typically the only way to remove the hacker’s access. He said he would encourage anyone who has been hacked to then check their email more closely after the incident.

Bening that the individual sits on the TCOE board of education, there is a concern about information getting out. Alexander said typically hackers will practice “phishing” or pretending to be someone else, before they will search through an email to find other personal information. However it is still possible and does happen. 

As for the Tulare County Office of Education (TCOE), the communications director Rob Herman said it is a regular occurance in business these days that emails are hacked. Employees are trained to report any suspicious emails to TCOE’s Information Systems (IS) Department. 

“In the event that the spoofed email is within our organization, our systems analyst and network engineer will quickly disable the email,” Herman said. “In the event that the email is outside TCOE’s email network, the IS staff will help the individual to change his or her password to prevent further unwarranted access to the account.”

As for Sayer, the email only asked the reporter if they had an amazon account. No further interactions were made in the email chain, but Sayer’s description of the scam was similar to the board members. She said her hack was noticed almost immediately and nothing important was shared. Alexander said some of the most common scams are those dealing with Google, Amazon, Apple and any large scale business.

Google has a page under Google Play Help that gives individuals advice on what to do if you are a victim of a gift card scam. As the world grows with technology, hackers are becoming bigger and better. 

The BBB has a resource for consumers called the BBB scam tracker and it can be found at their website, bbb.org. It allows individuals to report scams in their area to allow other people to know about it. 

“If something sounds suspicious, somebody else might have encountered it and reported it as a scam,” Alexander said. “It’s just a good way for people to watch out for scams when they’re making the rounds.”

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