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June 22, 2014 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

I contacted the scammer in Nigeria who stole my email account and he actually replied.

Last week I was viciously assaulted.

No, this wasn't a physical attack. And I've since discovered I wasn't the only one to suffer the horrific consequences of a new kind of criminality made possible by modern technology.

What was stolen from me was not my money but my identity. I have no idea how it was done. As part of the generation who still remembers using the old Remington Royal typewriter, computer language is geek to me and Google is a miracle that totally transcends my understanding. But I've come to treasure my email and wonder how I ever got along with the snail mail of stamps and postal service. I love how I can reach out to all of my contacts with just a touch of the keyboard - or at least I did until I discovered that someone could somehow steal my password, reach out to all the people I know and tell them whatever suits his nefarious purpose.

I first began to suspect something was wrong when I could no longer access my account. Next thing I knew, people called my home to commiserate and ask for more details. From them we learnt the text of the e-mail sent out in my name.

It was a brilliant scam. With a header that had but one word, trouble, it briefly laid out the following scenario, a pastiche of lies that might readily pass as true:

“Hi, apologies for having to reach out to you like this, but I made a quick trip two days ago, to London, United Kingdom and had my bag stolen from me with my passport and credit cards in it. The embassy is willing to help by authorizing me to fly without my passport, I just have to pay for a ticket and settle hotel bills. Unfortunately, I can't have access to funds without my credit card, I've made contact with my bank but they need more time to come up with a new one. I was thinking of asking you to lend me some quick funds that I can give back as soon as I get in. I really need to be on the next available flight. I can forward you details on how you can get money to me. You can reach me via email (and here the thief inserted an email address very similar to mine but with an added letter which would go directly to him, enabling him to “verify” his request) or hotel's desk phone, (and here the thief had an actual number in England which either went to an accomplice of his or was rerouted to Nigeria, his home base, which I subsequently discovered by a careful analysis of his email). Waiting for response. Thanks.”

The man who stole my identity was hoping for about $2000 from at least a few of the hundreds of people on my contact list, which he assumed included friends who care enough about my well-being to help me in a time of desperate need.

This time he got nothing. Many of my friends were aware of the scam. Others called my home to make certain it was not a fraud and had their suspicions confirmed.

Related Article: The Scam

But the most amazing part of the story is something that followed. Perhaps foolishly, I decided to try to take on the mastermind of this international scheme. My friends advised me to drop the matter but I wouldn't listen.

I realized I had a way of directly “speaking” to the thief. My slightly altered email address was the one that obviously went directly to him. So I wrote him a note.

I told him that he had crossed a very serious line in his criminal activities and that he must be aware that there are consequences to his evil deeds.  I said that in my lifetime I very often felt things intuitively and now there is one thing I know beyond any measure of doubt – he would be stricken both financially and physically in the near future as a consequence to his actions. For whatever good it might do, I felt my words might at the very least be a goad to his conscience, if not implant a small measure of fear for the results of his misdeeds.

He told me he has no reason to be afraid since he will be forgiven for all sins, no matter their severity.

A few hours later, incredibly enough, I received a response. The hacker, the Nigerian con man actually answered me!

Yes, he was sorry that he caused me pain, he said. And yes, he too agreed that there is a God Who is aware of what he did. But he assured me that God is a God of love who will continue to love him no matter what he does. He has no reason to be afraid since he will be forgiven for all sins, no matter their severity.

It was a stunning example of the danger implicit in a theology that proclaims divine love as the sole and supreme rule of the universe. If evildoers need never fear heavenly retribution they can merrily go on their way content in their knowledge that they have carte blanche from God for their wicked behavior. A God who loves us no matter what we do in the end becomes more than a friend; in fact, for the truly evil, he is an accomplice.

Judaism is far more demanding. Jews are judged on the scale of deeds, weighing good actions against the bad and carefully keeping count of all of our activities. Forgiveness is not an undeserved gift from God; Jews are required to do teshuvah, a threefold process of repentance that necessitates recognition of guilt, remorse for the past, and a firm commitment never to repeat the sin in the future. And if one's actions caused harm to another, the fourth step requires seeking forgiveness from the wronged party. According to Judaism, forgiveness is not given, it is earned.

I won't be corresponding with my hacker anymore. I've said my piece. I know why he is not concerned. But I'm truly grateful that he hasn't really stolen my identity. He hasn't begun to grasp what I know from my Jewish heritage, that precisely because God loves me so much He holds me accountable for my actions. In that way He permits me to realize my greatest potential – not simply to get but to earn His love.

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