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Poison Pen From France: New Twist on Nigerian E-mail Shakedown

RITA PARDUE GETS TOO MANY e-mails and has too little time to read them all. But as she scrolled through her in-box on the morning of July 7, one subject line demanded her attention: “Someone you call your friend wants you dead.”

Her mind began to race with possibilities — preposterous possibilities that had been unthinkable moments before. She’s a devoted Christian, past president of the Glendale PTA and a hard-working single mom. But in the last year, a long-term business and personal relationship had come to a sad, emotional end, and recently there had been a few one-and-done dates that were borderline disasters. On top of that, she was a public figure in her former job at KKLA as host of the most popular Christian talk show in Los Angeles. Her picture was right up there on her personal Web site, and her voice was all over the airwaves.

“My first thought was that I might have offended someone somehow, maybe over some kind of personal misunderstanding. Or maybe someone had a vendetta from the talk show,” she says. “But I couldn’t think of anyone who would hate me that much and would have the money to hire a hit man.”

The threat e-mailed to the 56-year-old mother of two young men demanded $8,000 to cancel the hit, and it read: “I felt very sorry and bad for you, that your life is going to end like this, if you don’t comply. I was paid to eliminate you and I have to do it within 10 days. Someone you call a friend wants you dead by all means.”

Now a production manager who provides voice-over talent at SCPR in Pasadena, Pardue realized it might be some kind of foreign-based spam, perhaps a new twist on the old Nigerian banking scam. But it was the threat to her family that moved it from the “delete” category to the “follow-up” category.

“Right now,” the e-mail read, “my men are monitoring you, their eyes are on you, and even the place you think is safer for you to hide might not be. Now do you want to LIVE OR DIE?... Warning: Do not think of contacting the police or even tell anyone because I will extend it to any member of your family.“

“I FELT LIKE A MOTHER LION protecting her cubs,” Pardue says. Within 24 hours, she had filed complaints with the Pasadena City College Campus Police, the Los Angeles Police Department and the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center, located at www.ic3.gov.

Detective Brett Richards of the LAPD Robbery-Homicide Division says, “We’re seeing more and more of these hit-man threats. The banking scam has gotten so old, they need something new and fresh.”

Derrick Bittner, a technician at Net Front, Pardue’s Internet provider, told the Weekly he had traced Pardue’s threat to Moulineaux, France, and suspects its source was an Internet café. “Working off information coded in the headers, I took it to the server and then to the IP address, but that’s leased to a telecommunications firm. So it might very well be an Internet café,” Bittner says. “It’s frustrating to know the town in France but not the person.”

The LAPD works with ic3.gov, the federal Internet-crime complaint Web site, which reviews every complaint submitted to it and refers those that merit investigation to the LAPD and to other local law-enforcement agencies.

“First and most important, don’t respond,” the LAPD’s Richards says. “That’s key,” because almost none of the senders know the actual name of the person they are threatening. Instead, file a complaint with police and use ic3.gov to file a federal complaint.

Cathy Milhoan, a spokeswoman at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., says thousands of hit-man complaints were filed with ic3.gov in the past 18 months, “and we’ve even seen a few with specific follow-ups. ... It’s really the first time we’ve seen these kind of scams involving threats of physical violence.”

Richards and Milhoan are unaware of anyone who has actually paid the extortion money. But, “Someone who did pay it might be too embarrassed to report it,” Milhoan says.

Most of the hit-man threats have come from Africa and Europe, but, Richards says, further tracking “usually goes back to an Internet café, and that’s where the trail goes cold. ... It’s a global problem, very difficult to trace back to an individual.”

Pardue realizes “the Internet is supposed to be the wild, wild west,” but says she can’t just “delete a threat from a hit man willing to cancel the contract if I send him eight thousand dollars.”

While the hit-man episode is technically over, it really isn’t. “Both Brinks and ADT are coming out to our house this weekend to give estimates on a security system,” Pardue says. “I never thought I would have to do something like that.”

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