Hacking into private email accounts is a time-honoured tradition in Taiwan, and a recent case here involving unscrupulous would-be felons hacking into wide-eyed and innocent Taiwanese MSN Messenger users' accounts has the entire Silicon Island on edge.
Seems some savvy ninja hackers - a hacker in Mandarin is called a "hei-ke" [駭客] - have been
breaking into dozens of MSN accounts and then asking users' friends to help them buy online game storage cards at local 7-11 and Family Mart convenience stores. Smell a rat here?
Most people knew it was a scam right away and did not reply. But a fair few high school and college students thought the requests were legit and then went along with the scam. Oops.
Once convinced that their "friend" needed some help buying the storage cards - what
are friends for? - they were then asked to send along storage card account information and... passwords. Once that info was in the can the "hei-ke" army quietly celebrated.
A local woman, who asked the media not to print her name, told police she was hacked last week and asked to help a friend online.
"One of my friends friend asked me on MSN to help him increase the number of visits to a website," she tearfully told reporters. "I thought it was really my friend. So I went to the site and entered my MSN account and password information as requested, but the submission failed. I realized then and there that I had been set up, but it was already too late because someone got into my account and changed the password. Damn."
There are more than eight million MSN users in Taiwan - which has a total population of almost 25 million people - so this computes to about 33 percent of the nation being hooked up to the program.
How many people fell for the recent scam and got Shanghai'd by the "hei-ke" sting? Police aren't saying, but it's more than a few.
Microsoft Taiwan is aware of the issue and fighting back.
"We have formed a special task force to deal with similar cases that emerged in October," Celine Cheng, the company's regional assistant marketing manager told reporters. She cautioned MSN users in Taiwan once again to be careful what they do online and not to click on unidentified website links that appear on MSN since. naturally, "this could lead to more hackers stealing more accounts and passwords."
There's one glitch: One of the obstacles Microsoft Taiwan faces in helping users restore their accounts is the fact that many people forget the information that they entered in their MSN account applications.
"Obviously, this makes it difficult and time-consuming for our company to check whether or not the complaints are from the original users," Cheng said. "We are now asking users to update their software in order to enhance security."
This is not the first time this has happened in Taiwan, and it won't be the last.
Many Taiwanese high school and university students are friendly and trusting people, given the friendly and trusting nature of Taiwan's island culture, and that makes some of them easy targets for the "heike" lurking in the vaporsphere. Taiwan is ripe for the taking.
But it's a wonderful country, troublesome hackers aside, and may it always remain so.