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Email fraud came close to wrecking my life – and the charity I run

On the last day of our summer holiday in my Dorset cottage, my son shouted down the stairs "Mum, you've been hacked".

That sunny day, 25 August, saw the beginning of the most gruelling, frustrating and miserable period of my recent life. It lasted nearly four weeks, when I felt totally isolated from all my contacts across the world, and work virtually stopped as I had no access to my Google Gmail account.

The phones, landlines and mobile, never stopped ringing as an endless list of people – friends, colleagues, civil servants (surely they should have recognised the money-seeking message as fraudulent?), people I had not spoken to for years – called to ask if I was in Spain, whether I had been robbed, or if it was a scam. Moreover, various elderly friends and relations (I am in my 80th year so it is not surprising that many on my list are as old or older) unwittingly fell for the trick, followed the instructions and sent off the requested money.

I lost all the contacts in my computer address book. It meant I almost had to close the charity I direct, Widows for Peace through Democracy, because I had missed so many deadlines and our work was badly compromised.

I am simply one of the many thousands of victims of the "mugged in Spain" scam. For Spain, substitute "Athens", "Cyprus", "Kuala Lumpur" or whatever destination the fraudsters care to use. Most of us, surely, can immediately recognise the message that urgently pleads for a loan of around £2,000 because I have been "attacked on my way back to my hotel …" as fraudulent.

But many people did not. As far as I know some £5,000 has been sent, as if to me, as a "loan to be repaid with interest". And during the month I was unable to use my Gmail account, I learned of at least six other cases where people had received similar emails as if from people they knew, and sent off large sums.

Yes, it is easy for us to express amazement that anyone could send off money without first doing a little bit of detective work – such as telephoning one's children to ask whether we really are abroad, or taking other advice. But the fact is, that in a contact list of maybe over 3,000 names, if just a handful of people fall for the scam, the fraudsters have won.

Google has no human helpline you can contact, unlike the paid-for providers, such as AOL and Virgin, and I feel its website is sadistically ambiguous in the instructions it gives on what to do if you cannot access your emails. But, eventually, we got back by changing the password to one very esoteric and surely uncrackable, and were able to message everyone on the contact list about what had happened.

For a whole week I worked hard to re-establish the work of our charity – the only NGO in the world that represents the needs of widows and wives of the missing in mainly conflict-afflicted countries. I was desperately concerned that I had let down my partner associations in Iraq, India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Congo, Nigeria, Southern Sudan (to name just a few on our network) since, due to the hack, I failed to meet UN deadlines to report specific human rights violations. I missed putting in project proposals and grant applications to various UN and other fund sources, and let down so many people vainly trying to contact me.

WPD operates from my home; has no core funding; no paid staff and all our work is done on the internet, using our Gmail address which is printed on all our publicity material and our website.

However, once reinstated in Gmail, I pulled myself together, buoyed up by the marvellously sympathetic Eddie Mair of Radio 4's PM programme, who gave me a slot to describe what these scams can do to one's work, and to one's life. And then … Boom, Crash, it happened again, this time back in my west London house.

On 29 September I got a call from Fiona Hodgson, on my advisory committee, who was preparing to chair the forthcoming Conservative Conference. "I am so sorry, Margaret. I know what you've been through in the last month but you have been hacked again."

I have to admit I nearly collapsed, since the horrors of the past month were so vivid and I knew I could not face a repetition of that saga. I would have to close down WPD and cease all work on the issue of widows' rights that I feel so passionate about and which is so neglected by the UN, the international community, and our UK International Development Department.

In Dorset, I had called the local police, but they admitted there were no resources to deal with these frauds since the priorities for a much-strapped police force are "burglary, violence and Asbo". When it happened again in London, we called the Met and they were rather more on the ball.

Their advice was to close down my Gmail account completely; transfer all the contact addresses to a private account I have with AOL, and to take a hard copy of the contacts so I would not be caught out should anything happen in the future. They also explained that my new password was easily decipherable once the fraudsters had my email address, for they have some device that browses every combination of letters and numbers until they get the magic mix. They advised: "Don't use any of the free internet providers like Google, Hotmail or Yahoo. None of these have help lines. Only use providers you pay for."

Although I have put the Met in touch with Dorset Police, and sent them all the evidence I have collected from other people's experiences of this hack, I fear nothing can be done. The police agree. They say the public must become more vigilant and aware of these frauds. This scam is on a vast global scale but neither Western Union, which is designated as the channel for these money transactions, nor Google itself, is prepared to bear any responsibility or help track down these criminals. Besides, the UK police are powerless to act since the fraudsters mostly operate from overseas.

There is much discussion in the media on cyber-crime, but it is mostly directed at gangs that hack into bank accounts, credit cards and big company or government computer systems. No one seems to pay any attention to the hacking of individuals' identity through their email accounts.

What is to be done? I feel wretched about the kind people who truly believed I was in dire need and sent money to these criminals; but I can hardly afford to repay them as I, too, am a pensioner trying to run my NGO with practically no financial support.

As hacking individual accounts is one of the most lucrative of all cyber-crimes, I hope that greater resources will be invested to raise awareness of this type of fraud among the public, especially the elderly. Given that this crime has no borders, information sharing between law enforcement officials internationally is vital. And I very much hope that the government will accommodate this type of fraud within its cyber-security strategy, to be presented shortly to parliament.

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