Wednesday, August 04, 2010

E-mail scams

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Someone I know became a victim of an E-mail scam recently and lost a considerable amount of money in the process.

I know, I know. I thought of exactly the same thing when I heard about it: How can people be so gullible? What was even more surprising was that the person fell for the same E-mail scam that has been going around and around for more than two years now. Apparently he has not heard of the scam, which compelled me to write this piece. How many other people don’t know about it and therefore fall prey to the scam every day?

The basic modus operandi of this popular Email scam works this way. First, the perpetrators hack an E-mail account - the owner of the hacked account becomes the subject of the scam. The perpetrators then send out an E-mail to everyone in the person’s address book appealing for urgent help. The specific crisis described in the E-mail varies, but the drift is always the same: The person is currently traveling abroad, he got mugged or held up and lost all his money and credit cards but fortunately, not his passport, he is now trying to check out of a hotel and desperately wants to go home but needs money; can someone please, please, please send money through Western Union to bail him out?

Former Asian Institute of Management Professor and now Communications Group Secretary Sonny Coloma was once the subject of such a scam. I also heard that Butch Dalisay of the University of the Philippines was also the subject of a similar scam recently. My friend—the one I described above who actually lost money—responded to the E-mail scam because he received an email from the official account of his mentor who, according to the E-mail, was at that time stranded in Paris, cold, hungry, and broke. It didn’t occur to him to check if his mentor was really out of the country before parting with his money.

It’s not really surprising that a number of people fall for this scam, even including those who are supposedly equipped with superior mental faculties. The situation described in the scam represents what is probably a common fear among those who travel—being held up in a foreign land and facing the prospect of going cold and hungry for days until rescue comes along. In fact, this has happened to a friend of mine. He got held up in a train while traveling in Spain. He lost all his money and baggage and had to survive for a day on the mercy of strangers.

Thanks also to the overseas Filipino worker phenomenon, almost all of us know someone who is abroad at any given time. Our vulnerability to such scams is also highlighted by our collective paranoia and our vaunted tendency to imagine that what can happen to others can also happen to us.

And of course, we also know that there are indeed criminal elements capable of the nefarious deeds described in the email. We’ve heard of countless stories of Filipinos—promdis (rural folks)—who come to the Metro only to be immediately divested of their money and belongings by thugs. We can empathize.

But one wishes people would also be a little more cautious and would bother to check first before parting with their money. A simple phone call to verify the current whereabouts of the subject of the scam would probably do the trick. By so doing, one would probably learn that the person who is the subject of the scam is currently lounging around in a hammock in his backyard at Pandacan, Manila and not sitting forlorn at a bench at Central Park New York as alleged.

Ah, but alas, many among us lose our capacity to think logically when confronted with a crisis. But hopefully experiences like these make us wiser. Right, Lemuel?

I can understand how some people can be victimized by E-mail scams that describe an emergency involving someone we supposedly know. What I have difficulty comprehending is how some people can fall prey to those so-called Nigerian E-mail scams.

I receive many of those in my inbox; probably one every two days. What I noted is that the premise of this type of scam has become more and more absurd and preposterous, even downright hilarious. They’ve also become quite inventive and elaborate.

The most recent email I received supposedly originated from the Minister of Mining of the South African government. The E-mail provides a link to the official Web site of the South African government and to the bio data of the minister. Anyone who checks the links will be directed to the right sites, which are all authentic, but it is obvious that the sender of the email is impersonating the minister in question and is doing such an awful job at it. The email is shot through with atrocious grammatical errors, which by the way should already trigger major alarm bells. The way I look at it, anyone who writes formal letters in badly fractured English does not deserve one’s attention.

Even worse, all these scams have one common denominator that should be more than enough reason for anyone to just say no. It’s that each and every one of these scams are very upfront about asking you to be an accomplice to an illegal act—either to divert money somewhere, to avoid taxes, to defraud some rightful heir of their inheritance, or to embezzle a government or another institution.

The most famous of these scams was the so-called black gold scam. The premise of the scam was that some authoritarian regime or a corrupt official successfully smuggled out of an African country tons of dollars by coating them with black ink that could only be removed by special chemical. The readers’ participation was then solicited in the form of financial donation (to be returned with substantial interest—like 500 percent) for the purchase of more chemicals to wipe out the black ink. Some people actually fell for this scam including the father of Marc Mezvinsky, the celebrated groom of Chelsea Clinton. The senior Mezvinsky was jailed for enticing more people to be part of the scam.

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