Don't be victimized by e-mail scams

This is my column today.

I am sure everyone with an e-mail account, which I suppose covers more than half of the population, has received one of those urgent e-mails from some beleaguered heir to a fortune, in some exotic country in the African continent. These scam messages flood inboxes every day.

The general drift of these e-mails is the same. The sender has access to millions of dollars festering in some back account and tied up in legal gobbledygook. The sender begs for your cooperation—actually, for your complicity—in having the money wired to your personal back account, which you are asked to provide. In exchange, the sender promises part of the loot as reward for your assistance.

These e-mails were usually crafted in terribly fractured English, which ordinarily was enough reason to ignore them. After all, one has to be utterly naïve to send an e-mail with an absurd topic like “your kindly assistance” even a cursory once over.

The scam used to be about some unheard and usually ludicrous-sounding name of a prince or former government functionary who died without leaving a will.

And the scam used to be easy to detect because the circumstances described were preposterous. I once received one of these that referred to millions of dollars of American aid, supposedly siphoned off by a South African dictator. The scam offered an equally preposterous subterfuge that was supposed to elude the sophisticated monitoring devices of the combined forces of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By simply providing your personal bank account, or by transferring money to fund another account, one was supposed to unlock a chain of events that would culminate in a windfall.

One has to be unbelievably naïve or incorrigibly greedy to fall for these scams.

I have bad news. The perpetrators of these scams have now become wiser. Not only are these scam e-mails now about people that one knows personally, they describe situations that now sound credible enough.

I don’t know how many among us human resource management professionals were duped by the scam last week and actually forked over money supposedly to help a highly respected and well-loved colleague in the profession. But going by the profusion of e-mails that was generated, it seemed the scam worked.

The e-mail that many HRM professionals received last week seemed real enough. The return address was a yahoo mail account that carried the name of management consultant Sonny Coloma, professor at the Asian Institute of Management and former president of the People Management Association of the Philippines.

Because Coloma happened to be a consultant of international repute, the situation described sounded credible. Below is the unedited full text of the e-mail which many HRM professionals received last week:

“How are you doing today? I am sorry I didn’t inform you about my traveling to Africa for a program called “Empowering Youth to Fight Racism, HIV/AIDS, Poverty and Lack of Education, the program is taking place in three major countries in Africa which is Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria.

“It has been a very sad and bad moment for me, the present condition that I found myself is very hard for me to explain. I am really stranded in Nigeria because I forgot my little bag in the taxi where my money, passport, documents and other valuable things were kept on my way to the Hotel am staying, I am facing a hard time here because I have no money on me. I am now owning a hotel bill of $600 and they wanted me to pay the bill soon or else they will have to seize my bag and hand me over to the Hotel Management.

“I need this help from you urgently to help me back home, I need you to help me with the hotel bill and I will also need $1,800 to feed and help myself back home. All I have remaining in my pocket at the time I lost my bag was $1,200 but some one has assisted me with $500.

“I will therefore want you to help me with $650 so I can sort out my problems here. I need this help so much and on time because I am in a terrible and tight situation here, I don’t even have money to feed myself for a day which means I had been starving, so please understand how urgent I need your help.

“I am sending you this e-mail from the city library, I will appreciate whatsoever you can afford to send me for now and I promise to pay back your money as soon as I return home so please let me know on time so that I can forward you the details you need to transfer the money through Money Gram or Western Union.”

Because the situation described sounded feasible (being stranded in some forsaken country because one lost travel documents and money has happened to two of my friends before) and precisely because it involved someone held in high regard, the e-mail immediately got forwarded to the rest of the HRM community. By noon of the same day, people were already putting together a rescue plan that involved pooling together the money requested and sending it over pronto. I personally received a number of e-mails expressing alarm over Coloma’s alleged dire situation and asking how they can help.

My first reaction was to check the veracity of the e-mail. Because I couldn’t contact Coloma by phone, I asked the professional staff of PMAP to verify if Coloma was indeed in Africa. The response was as I expected. He was in the Philippines and the e-mail was a scam. Another profusion of e-mail warning everyone that the original e-mail was a scam ensued, but who knows who was actually victimized and immediately sent money as requested?

Someone suspected that a virus attached to the E-mail enabled it to steal the addresses and perpetuate itself. I doubt it. The E-mail got forwarded because of the very real human element described. People took it upon themselves to forward it to everyone else fueled by a genuine desire to come to the aid of someone they actually know.

It is heartwarming to note of course, as Coloma himself noted, that people could be roused to come together to help someone in dire need. It’s good to recognize that despite these uncertain times, our ability to care, to provide comfort, to empathize with our fellowmen has remained undiminished. It’s just too bad that there are unscrupulous people out there who capitalize on this positive trait to enrich themselves through some nefarious scheme.

How do we protect ourselves from similar scams? Someone suggested protecting ourselves from identity theft by taking out public e-mail accounts in our names. Unfortunately, this is not foolproof as e-mail accounts can be hijacked. It is also probably too late for some people as the probability that you are the only person in the world with the same name is quite remote. Still the surest way not to be victimized by similar scams is by practicing vigilance. This means not forwarding e-mails without verifying its authenticity first. Check first before doing anything rash, especially parting with hard-earned money.


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