Saturday, July 30, 2011

I feel like my heart was hacked today...

Originally written on Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 10:48pm

It is is the eve of my birthday and I'm feeling heartbroken.

I woke up this morning with the intention of e-mailing job applications and getting some writing done. It's no secret that I've been suffering a severe case of writer's block over the past few months and I planned to remedy that today.

I thought my first blog post would be, "Thankful Thursday" - something I started last year in Korea. In fact, every single day I used to list as many things as I could for whatever I was grateful for.  It would be as simple as: "I'm grateful for air con, the food I ate and for the compliment a student gave me in class." Today, however, I had something really wonderful to be grateful for.  

My mum was in hospital yesterday and she came out fine and is recovering well at home. Because I came home to East London to be with my mum, it just so happens that I would be at home to celebrate my birthday (tomorrow - July 29).

It's felt like a dark cloud has been hovering over me for the past few months. Amidst all that, I have been trying to count my blessings and to appreciate and acknowledge people around me. For example, the fact that I have two parents who are fairly healthy (and still married) is something to be celebrated in this day and age.

While I am a private person, I have always used my writing as a way to express myself. Reading back on old postings, I realized that some of my best pieces were written at the height of an emotion.I was either overjoyed for something or feeling very lousy. I regret few things, especially the choices I make. I always feel that my bad choices make for good stories ;)

So for the next few minutes, I want to express how I'm feeling. Let me vent. Let me cry...please, let me tell my story.

This morning at exactly 10:39, I got a call fom Bazil Raubach. A friend of my dads, we also keep in touch now and then on Facebook. It was a nice surprise to hear from him, until he said:

"Quick question - do you have a address?"
I don't.

He then went on to read an email that he had just received from "me". It said that "I" had traveled to Spain and that I had been robbed and was requesting money to be sent while I waited for documentation to be completed from the embassy.

But I don't have a "ymail" account, I told Bazil.
"Do you have a" he asked.

Sure I do - that's my primary address!

As soon as I got off the phone from Bazil, I planned to log in to my email and change my password.

I have been using a BlackBerry for the past 10 months or so. Of course, I've used it primarily for email so there was no need for me to really log on to my email account (Gmail) from a computer. I was even able to chat to my friends via the GTalk app.

This morning, I had a few GTalk chats open on my BB and when I hung up from Bazil, I suddenly got a flood of messages (on GTalk and on Twitter) and just as if it was a movie, my contact list on GTalk shrunk to zero. I tried logging into my email account, but it said it was invalid. I tried again. And again. Slowly. Again. Nothing. I couldn't log in.

Then I started getting calls from friends...and people I haven't spoken to in months and even years! They all had the same story: That they received an email from "me" and also, just to double check that I WAS ok.

I was getting calls, voice mails, text messages and Facebook messages. 

This didn't seem like a "typical" email hack, because the hacker was RESPONDING to some of my friends' emails.

This is what the email said:

"I hope you take no offense in my sudden approach. I took a trip this weekend to Valencia, Spain and was robbed luckily they didn't really hurt me. My belongings including my cash, credit card and cell phones were all stolen. I've made contact with my bank but the best they can do is to mail me a new card which will takes about 5 working days to arrive here, while am currently concluding my documentation at the embassy so i can fly out. Please I need you to lend me some funds to settle some bills.

Please let me know if you can assist me in anyway.

Waiting for your mail.


Sheetal Makhan"

The panic button went off in my head and thanks to my friend, Chetan (because I was unable to think straight) - I was able to email Google and report this.

I spent the whole day trying to sort this out, while taking calls on my cell, my mum's cell and the home phone. Eventually, I created a Yahoo email account and emailed the idiot who was using MY NAME. I pretended as though I was a concerned friend of "Sheetal" and asked questions like "

Are you alone in Spain?" (Yes - how soon can you send the money?)
and then I asked
"Are you at a hotel?" (Yes, but I moved to a smaller one that's cheap to cut expenses.)

This just felt weird. Emailing MYSELF and receiving emails from MYSELF?

A couple of friends threatened this hacker and said the police are onto them, to which they replied: "F*ck you".

This evening, it hit me hard what all this meant. My email was hacked. Big deal, right? I haven't reached that stage where I'm able to joke about this yet. I think I'm far from it.

Why am I so upset?

The past few months have been incredibly difficult for me as I have tried to find work in South Africa since coming back from Korea. Very few people know how this has taken a toll on me. I have sent applications with my CV attached to numerous people - all over South Africa.

In mid-April I decided to move to Cape Town. I figured, it's better to job hunt when I'm physcally there. I moved to the Mother City at the beginning of July. With my mother's help, I was able to settle in quickly and get along with my job hunt. As I type this, my CV is sitting in the dozens of Inboxes of any and every place that is media-related. My CV details my education background, work history and of course - my contact details (most importantly - my email address).

There have been a couple of places I have called to do a follow up of my job applications, and I was (abruptly) told that they will be in touch VIA E-MAIL.

So as I write this, livid, I am thinking of the number of places that are sitting with my CV.What if they write back to me - and I can't access my email?

By now you're probably wondering why I can't retrieve my password using an alternate address. Well, it appears as though the hacker has created another email address IN MY NAME and has linked it to my Gmail account.

As I was telling my friend, Lanese this evening - I have been active online since I was in primary school, way before ".com" became part of our everyday lingo. It's taken me build my online profile, network across the globe and share my work with many readers.

At university, I started my blog - which I later changed to

My blog became my confidant while I was in Korea. It was an open journal that I used to share my thoughts and feelings with family, friends and complete strangers. I did a fair amount of traveling around Asia and took hundreds of photographs, and I would come back and write about my journey on my blog.

And then Twitter came along, and through it I met (virtually and in real life) incredible people. Twitter was used as a tool to share my writing with others as well.

YouTube, which I used extensively in Korea...

....and more. All these things were linked. And now, I feel weak typing this as it feels like I have lost all control over these things.

About two years ago, I had another unfortnate incident in Korea when my hard drive crashed to the ground. I spent $500 trying to recover my data, but very little was recovered.
- And before you tell me to "back up", I had already ordered another external hard drive as a back up and was getting it in the next few days. - 

So am I crying over material things like a hard drive and silly ol' email address?
I write for a reason. To tell a story. To capture memories - either in the form of a picture or a dialgoue. This is me and this is what I love to do, and what I hope to continue doing for many more years.

My hard drive crashing to the ground meant photographs were gone.

People who have had their cars or homes broken into often speak of the feeling of violation. They feel exposed. Naked.

This is how I feel. Thousands of emails. Hundreds of contacts - school friends, university friends, lecturers, friends from all over the world...just like that, out of my control.

In the midst of feeling like this, believe me, the last thing I want to hear is, "Well you shouldn't put everything online." or "You should change your password often." Well - I did change my password recently, and while I may have walked into this horrible trap, I certainly didn't ask for it and I don't wish it upon anyone.It really does feel like this stroke of bad luck has latched onto me, gnawing its claws into my flesh and just not giving me a break.

My greatest concern right now is that the email I used for applying for work has been hacked. And I can't access it because my password has been changed.

To be very honest, I was surprised by some of the calls I recevied from long lost friends who 1) asked if I was OK and 2) wanted to alert me of this horrific crime. I say crime because that is what it is. It is identity theft.

Another concern is that this email, titled "Trouble" was sent to absolutely everyone - including my Korean friends, who I know may take this literally.

Some friends have told me that it is likely for me to travel like that, but on the other hand, it's also good to know who knows me well enough - that no matter how strapped for cash I am, I will never ever send an email asking for money.

It's 10pm. 2 hours left till I turn a year older. A year wiser? I don't know.

What I do know is how I feel.

Every night this week, I've been going to bed with a prayer in my heart.
Please let my mother be ok and remove any pain she has.
Please keep my family safe.
Please keep me safe in my new home.
Please can a job open up for me.

If you've read this far, you may be thinking: "What the hell is this girl on about?" 

It upsets me even more when people don't get what this means to me. It's very easy to say, "Just get another address." It's so NOT about that. It's about everything it's linked to.

I was very heartsore today. For many things. A culmination of emotions that have been building up over the past few months. Through all this, I do appreciate certain people who have been so kind to me about all this - my parents, Chetan, Yogita, Lanese and Aunty Bonz. Today, especially I appreciate these people for giving me their shoulders to cry on, regardless of their time zone.

Good night. 


Nicki said...

I hope you are feelling better! Thanks for the emotional explanation. I did get one of those e-mails. When I got it, my heart sank because I knew you traveled a lot but I know you're not the type of person to send an email like that either. I'm glad I got another e-mail from the REAL you indicating that you were actually alright. I'm sorry that your identiy was stolen. Hope all is well.

PS - I haven't been feeling great lately either :(

Sheetal said...

My dear friend, thank you for your message. I'm slowly getting things back together again. Let's continue this conversation over email - going to send you one right now x