Phish Story

You’ll never believe — or you shouldn’t, anyway — who sent this email promising untold riches.

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

At first glance the email looked disarmingly official.

The stationery-resembling heading announced the origin of the message as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Field Intelligence Groups that’s located in the J. Edgar Hoover Building on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. All accurate information.

The authoritative aura of the communication quickly began to fade with the somewhat impersonal nature of the salutation: “Attention: Beneficiary.” Why, pray tell, was the FBI trying to contact the beneficiary of anything?

As the message unfolded, so, too, did the mystery surrounding it.

“We sincerely apologize for sending you this sensitive information via e-mail instead of certified mail, post-mail, phone, or face-to-face conversation,” began the body of the directive.

Alarmingly, it then took a rapid turn into a syntactical jungle of wayward phrases and clauses. Despite the word-salad sentence construction, the purported sender — “Christopher A. Wray,” who is the real (and often criticized) FBI director — is clearly identified.

Here, to be specific, is the clumsy, nearly incoherent pitch: “Due to the urgency and importance of the security information in your package, I’m Christopher A. Wray from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) and Field Intelligence Groups (FIGs). We intercepted a big envelope at JFK Airport in New York containing a huge amount of money and some backup documents bearing your name as the beneficiary and receiver.”

Schmuhl Phishing

As you might guess, to release the “huge amount of money” the recipient must respond to lower-case “christopher” at the email address from which the urgent note originated. Armed with that information, according to the instructions, the FBI director himself generously promises to “walk you through the process of clearing and claiming the money.” His valediction includes this flourish: “Yours in Service.”

Anyone who’s on email is subjected to similar cyber shenanigans with a frequency testing the most impregnable spam filters. What makes this one worth attention and analysis is the audacity and brazenness involved.

Hiding behind the mask of the actual FBI director to conduct nefarious activity takes fraudsterism into territory well beyond the overtures of computerized charlatans perpetrating attempted scams and swindles from overseas.

What’s funny (if that’s the right word) is that the FBI is the leading agency for the “National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force,” composed of 30 different governmental units that “coordinate, integrate and share information to support cyber threat investigations.”

It’s no secret that cyber criminality has increased dramatically in recent years. This past March the FBI released a study that Americans in 2022 lost $10.3 billion to internet scams of one kind or another. The bureau’s “Internet Crime Complaint Center” fielded more than 2,000 complaints a day. The most highly reported form of malfeasance are so-called “phishing” expeditions — unsolicited emails, text messages and phone calls that attempt to lure the recipient on the hook for money.

“Christopher A. Wray’s” fictitious email-cum-wealth advisory is Exhibit A of what the FBI tries to track down. Phishing amounted to losses of some $52 million last year that entrapped over 300,000 victims.

Back in the 19th century, promoter extraordinaire P.T. Barnum was credited with — or accused of — saying: “There's a sucker born every minute.” Though never substantiated as a verbatim wisecrack uttered by the co-founder of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the statement summarized Barnum’s somewhat jaundiced view of the human condition. To him, gullibility was as natural as breathing for many people.

How does his view align with the realities of the 21st century? The basic point still holds true, but one might question the unit of time cited. Today it’s probably closer to “every second” rather than “every minute” — with the internet becoming a hatchery for hackers to seduce untold suckers.

What’s remarkable about the phony come-on from the in-name-only FBI director is that it was identical to an earlier message that arrived recently. Phishing season for the counterfeit “Christopher A. Wray” never seems to end.

Bob Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. He’s the author of several books, including Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record and The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from the New Deal to the Present (both published by Notre Dame Press).