Lost in Lagos? The mystery of Jack Straw and the Nigerian scammers

A message from 'Jack': "I misplaced my wallet on my way to the hotel where my money and other valuable things were kept..." "I would like you to assist me with a soft loan urgently to settle my hotel bills and get myself back home"

It was an astonishing plea for help. A desperate Justice Secretary Jack Straw, stranded in the steaming West African city of Lagos, with no money and nowhere to stay. His urgent demand: please send $3,000 to bring me home. To alarmed members of the Blackburn Labour Party who received the email, it seemed strangely out of character for their globetrotting MP to be in sudden and urgent need of a cash bailout.

And so it was.

For Mr Straw, who during his tenure as Home Secretary pioneered a special unit to crack down on internet fraud, had become the latest victim to fall foul of an online scam.

Mr Straw's constituency Hotmail account was hacked into by what are thought by constituency workers to be Nigerian criminals who bombarded hundreds of the Justice Secretary's friends, colleagues and constituents with begging messages claiming he was stranded in Nigeria after losing his wallet.

The email, marked The Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, was dispatched to 200 contacts asking them to help the beleaguered minister. It claimed he had become separated from his pocket book while attending a summit called Empowering Youth to Fight Racism.

"I misplaced my wallet on my way to the hotel where my money and other valuable things were kept," pleaded the message, supposedly from Mr Straw. "I would like you to assist me with a soft loan urgently to settle my hotel bills and get myself back home."

One constituent replied, but is believed not to have offered the money.

The politician, who insists he was actually hard at work in Whitehall and oblivious to the demands made in his name, confirmed the emails had been sent to a "significant number of people" in his address book. He denied any security risk.

"I started getting phone calls from various constituents asking if I was really in Nigeria needing $3,000," Mr Straw explained yesterday. "The internet is wonderful in many ways, but these gangs put a lot of effort in because they make money from it. In a lot of cases they do get people to cough up.

"But I think it was so obviously ridiculous that I could go off trekking in Africa and I would lose my wallet." On the privacy of contacts' email addresses, he commented: "We are checking all that and I am assured there's no evidence that confidentiality of constituents was affected." He said the email account was used only for constituency affairs and not government business.

The cyber attack on Mr Straw's address book began on Thursday. Staff at his Blackburn constituency office received an email saying the Hotmail account would be frozen unless a reply was sent. When they complied with the request, the MP's team found themselves locked out as the rogue messages were sent. They knew there was a problem when constituents began ringing in to the office concerned over Mr Straw's wellbeing. Microsoft then suspended the account. Blackburn's Labour Mayor Mohammed Khan, who received a message reassuring him all was well, said Mr Straw was "annoyed but will take it on the chin", adding: "A lot of people received this email. It is really sad and bad that some people might think Jack Straw was begging for money but Jack would never do anything like this."

At the Home Office, Mr Straw was instrumental in the establishment of the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit in 2001, which was tasked with combating hackers, virus writers and other criminals seeking to exploit the potential of the internet as a lucrative place to rip people off.

Some of Mr Straw's constituents seemed unmoved by his plight. One commented on the website of the Lancashire Telegraph, for which Mr Straw writes a weekly column: "It's a shame Jack Straw was allegedly 'stranded' in Nigeria as I cannot see many true Labour socialist workers who would have helped him out. Leave him in the heat."

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