Have you been pwned?
Before I explain what the hell that means, it is important I give a bit of backstory and explanation so you understand where I am fully coming from.
This website is slowly, but surely, turning into a mixture of interviews with readers like you, real-life experiences from me and a shared combination of our interactions with strangers. I mention strangers, people I don’t know, because as I get older, I find myself relying more and more on these random people to have a sliver of generosity in them.
For example, when I call the pharmacy and get a robot for the 87th time and all I want to do is speak to a real-life-fucking-human; when an actual voice says something on the other line—they are my lord-almighty-savior. Yes, I have a patience issue.
When I got my ID stolen in Miami on the first night of a three-day trip, anyone who would give me the time of day to listen to my problem was my lord-almighty-savior (mostly because that means I’d proven my age and could now order a mimosa). If you missed Tuesday’s post about my trip to Miami, and experience getting pickpocketed—you can read it here.
My point is, whether it is a pharmacy, a bouncer, a customer service agent for health insurance, a DMV employee, a DoorDash driver—we rely on each other, as strangers, for a lot of things.
So, let’s get back to “have you been pwned?”
Strangers, A.K.A. other people, in my head, break down into two categories, each that have their own subcategories:
1. Strangers I trust(ish)
2. Strangers I don’t trust at all
Here is an example of a subcategory breakdown:
I give the last four of my social security number to the man at Chase bank so he can pull up my account number---Stranger I trust(ish).
A man calls me from an out-of-state number telling me he needs the last four of my social security number to extend my car’s warranty---Stranger I don’t trust at all.
My friend said her cousin lives close to the bar and can give us a ride home---Stranger I trust(ish).
A random man we met at the bar offers to give us a ride home---Stranger I don’t trust at all.
And, so on.
I was a senior in college, working as a freelance reporter, when I received an email threatening to expose webcam photos of myself if I did not wire over $1600 to this man’s account.
It is important I state my freelance job at the time because I was getting a lot, and I mean a lot, of emails from random people on the daily—but that was part of the job.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Ah, just another spam email. Yeah, that’s what I thought too, until I kept reading.
This man knew my first, middle and last name, he had a somewhat legitimate email address—by this I mean there were an absurd amount of numbers but it wasn’t an obvious hoax account—and, the freakiest thing of all, was that he knew, and stated in the email, the password I had been using since, quite literally, the second grade.
Stranger I don’t trust at all (but, like, also kinda trust that he wants to ruin my life).
Naturally, I am panicking. Not because I actually have webcam photos to be leaked (sorry, fellas. You’re welcome, dad) but, because if this guy actually knew my password, and he did, he could hack into any account of mine and make photos look like I had posted them.
He could end my career before it even started.
I remember it like it was yesterday; I was sitting on our old, wooden futon, reading the email as my heart sank into my stomach. Who the fuck did I piss off? I have always been a bit sassy, but as far as I knew, most people in my circle liked me. What are they going to post? Do we have a peeper? Is anyone safe?
I look up from my phone and make eye contact with my roommate, Mikayla.
“What?” She asks.
“Uh, pretty sure I am being blackmailed and my life is ending,” I said.
“Dude, what!” she screamed in her loud, Philly accent.
I swear in a matter of 30 seconds she had already called 17 of her Italian-Catholic family members and was reading off a URL one of her cousins told her to give me. He worked in tech and dealt with this stuff all the time, I guess.
(For humor’s sake, it is also worth noting that a different cousin had once given me gynecology advice over the phone, Mik’s mom had coached me in career and interview tips, and various other cousins or aunts had been called for help over the year of us living together)
^^^Check it once and check it twice, guys. All you have to do is type your email into the search bar. It saves nothing [of your personal info], but tells you everything.
That day, I saw that my password had been breached across 400 different websites and applications. I may have an online shopping issue, too. Anyways, check that shit out and if you see that there has been a “data breach” that means that your email and your password are somewhere out there for a stranger you don't trust at all to grab.
So, what did I do about the creepy email? Nothing.
I deleted it, I saved screenshots, just in case something ever came back up. I changed my password to every website I ever touched, and I asked my cop-friend about protocol for that sort of thing. He told me it’s best not to reply and if you ever start to see similar emails, then it might be worth reporting. IP addresses are trackable, but there are a lot of them, he said.
I wrap this up with the lesson learned:
Strangers I trust(ish), in this case Mikayla’s cousin, can literally save.the.day. with their help or advice when, Strangers I don’t trust at all, try to ruin the day with their conniving personalities.
And...change your freaking passwords.
Subscribe for free HERE for next week’s stories and lessons.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a story to share.