How a Chinese hacker tried to blackmail me

In 2007, I opened an email from an unknown sender. The message greeted me by a nickname known only to family and close friends. I was in Shanghai, unwinding late at night after a long day, pleased to be contacted by someone familiar from across the Pacific. I figured someone close to me must have gotten a new email address. But the note was signed “Eric.” I did not know an Eric.

The message was friendly and chatty, with several attachments, and it contained a proposal: I could pay 1 million renminbi (about $150,000 at the time), in exchange for which the sender would not forward the attachments to my business partners or competitors. It took me a second—in that out-of-body, as-if-movie-watching state we go to when totally disoriented—to digest what was happening. This was no friendly email from the home front, no business proposition in any traditional sense. This was blackmail, or extortion, or some other noun that I would never associate with my life.