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Realities of virtual thefts

It’s difficult to protect our loved ones from threats posed by cyber attacks

brunch Updated: Jun 09, 2018 19:50 IST
Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times
virtual theft,cyber attacks,paternalistic
We inhabit cyber space with ever-changing norms and rules. How do we keep up? (Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

“Don’t worry beta,” shouted Anwar uncle on the phone in the fashion of old people used to trunk calls. “I am at the bank, waiting to deposit the money into that account. I have friends in RAW. We will get your mother out of Nigeria one way or another.”

“Uncle, stop,” I shouted back. “Don’t deposit the money. That email was a fake.”

That morning, I received an email from my mother’s Yahoo account. It said that she was in Nigeria. She was not. She was in Nariman Point. It said that she had been robbed at gunpoint and stripped of all money, passport and papers. She needed $5,000 to pay the police. She was appealing to her friends. Bank details were given.

Knowing that it was a fraud, I instantly deleted the email, logged on to my mother’s account, and sent a clarification to everyone in her address book, asking them to ignore the fake email asking for money. What I didn’t realise was that Anwar uncle would hare off to the bank in the interim, determined to save his friend’s wife. Who does that in an age when we are reminded by Facebook about birthdays?

This is why Indians are easy to hack. Learn the names and nicknames of the children of any home. Mix and match with their birthdays which Facebook will helpfully supply. Voila!

Anwar uncle was relieved that my mom was attending a wedding in Mumbai and not in Nigeria. But the incident got me thinking: how do we protect our loved ones from fake and real threats? From physical and emotional harm?

My husband and daughter are having an argument at the dining table. He doesn’t want her to watch Game of Thrones because he considers it too violent. She accuses him of being “paternalistic” and out of date. How do they learn these words, these kids? And were we ever allowed to call our parents by such labels?

“I am not being paternalistic, merely persuasive,” says my husband, stung.If it were up to me, I would be like an octopus. I would sweep up my loved ones: parents, children, siblings, spouse in eight tentacles and sweep them into a protective den. Instead, here I am, protecting my mother against imagined threats in Nigeria and my daughter from mind-moulding television.

A few weeks later, I got another call from Anwar uncle.“Can you come over please?” he said in a strained voice. “Someone has broken in.”

It was my turn to race over to their home. Uncle and Aunty were grim as they received me. Purely by chance, Uncle went into the mailbox labelled “Spam,” he said. To his shock, there were a whole series of emails all saying the same thing. “Your account has been hacked.” The messages asked him to click on a link, which he sensibly didn’t. Instead, he called me.

“Beta, sorry to trouble you, but you seem to know how these kidnappers who took your mother operate. So I thought I would check with you who broke into my account before reporting it to the police,” he said. To Anwar uncle, a virtual break-in seemed as real as a thief entering their home. He couldn’t process the difference.

“Must be that boy your sister sent to Bangalore two weeks ago,” said Fatima aunty. “I told you not to let him spend the night here. Did you listen? He must have broken into our account.”

“Aunty, the break in happened from someone sitting in Russia, China or Croatia,” I said. “It is called a hack. You don’t need to be in the same country, let alone the same house to break in.”

They didn’t believe me, of course. I sat in their lovely living room and explained hacking and spamming for half an hour. At the end, aunty said, “Next time, we simply don’t allow strangers to sleep in our house, that’s all.”

The solution was to change their password. I told them to call their son in Berkeley to reset it. Trustingly, too trustingly, they ask me to do this. Their current password is “Ayesha1969.” Their daughter’s name and birth year.

“Change it to Pintu1973,” says Uncle.

This is why Indians are easy to hack. Learn the names and nicknames of the children of any home. Mix and match with their birthdays which Facebook will helpfully supply. Voila! You can break into their account.

For those like Anwar uncle who inhabit a world based on time-honoured friendships, actual telephone calls not texts, and trust built up over decades, safety and boundaries were physical, not nebulous. We inhabit cyber space with ever-changing norms and rules. How do we keep up? Who do we call when it is our turn?

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight.

From HT Brunch, June 10, 2018

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