07/03/2012 09:22 am ET | Updated Sep 02, 2012

My Mother Was Hijacked

It was a Friday afternoon and I was closing up for the week. I finished writing the final paragraph of a story, crammed my notes into a spiral notebook, opened my desk drawer, chucked everything in and quickly closed the drawer. There. My desk was spotless.

In a final gesture, I rolled into place the metal feng shui ball that a friend had given me for good office karma. Just as I leaned in to shut down my computer, I heard a ping. It was an email from my mother:

"Need Viagra?"

You've got to be joking. I wondered if my 81-year-old mother was going over the edge. Maybe she was trying to let off a little steam after a crazy week, too. Mid-thought came another ping. It was another email from my mother.

"I am stuck in Madrid and my wallet has been stolen. Can you wire me some money?"

I had just spoken with her that morning and I was fairly certain she hadn't taken a fast flight to Spain. Besides, she was supposed to come over for a BBQ on Sunday. And bring potato salad. She would never bow out on that responsibility.

Then came another ping. From guess who?

"I have a 2-year old who needs to be adopted. Please save her."

The jig was up. The fact was clear. My mother's email account had been hacked. Before I had a chance to call her, many pings began to pang in my inbox. Ping! Ping! Ping! Shotgun pings were flying in.

"I think you're mother got hijacked," a friend wrote. My friend, incidentally ... not my mother's friend. Had the spamming scanned the world to include my mailing list, too? Evidently.

Ping. An email from another friend.

"Your mother just asked me if I needed Viagra," he wrote. "Does she know something I don't know?"


"Uhmmm, is your mother okay? I'm getting really strange emails from her. You might want to give her a call," wrote another friend.

I suddenly thought that maybe this was my mother crying out for help. Maybe she's selling Viagra on the side, living undercover in Madrid, or trying to set up an adoption. The other reality might be one of the scariest things that can happen to tech-savvy elderly parents: getting hijacked on their computers. It is likely their one password unlocks the key to everything important, like their bank, life insurance, pension, and Netflix accounts.

In my instance, every single person my mother and I knew and every other person that person knew were now in chain-mail hell being asked strange questions and even stranger requests.

With no time to waste, I called my mother on her landline.

"Hellooo?" she asked when she picked up the telephone. I loved the flute-y sound of her voice.

"Mom, I think you've been hijacked," I said.

"What? But I'm in my apartment. I haven't gone anywhere," she said.

"No, I mean in cyberspace. You've been hijacked and everyone in your world (and mine) knows about it."

I explained to her that hijacked, or hacked, in cyber-speak means someone has cracked her code.

"Oh, my God," she said. "What do I do?"

"You need to immediately notify everyone in your contacts book that those messages didn't come from you. You are not selling Viagra ... in Madrid ... trying to get me adopted. Also, apologize for the inconvenience."

"How do I do that?"

If you, too, have an octogenarian parent who gets hijacked, don't bother calling the authorities. (You'll never get through anyway.) Tell your beloved to immediately change their password. Be sure it includes letters and punctuation, like the name of their first grade teacher, a question mark, and their favorite color. (Well, don't use that one because now everyone knows their password.)

The moral of the story? It's summertime. Close down your computer early on Fridays. Take a walk. Go glamping. Do something before your mother comes in there and spams you.


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