Sunday 25 January 2009

A scam-free 2009?

Last week I appealed for consumers to display more skepticism in 2009. I begged us all to be more critical, not to believe something just because a flashy salesman says it's so and to not to fall for the sort of scams that hit so many of us in 2008.

I gave the example of Success University, the pyramid scheme that is neither successful nor a university. However I was asked for more examples so that consumers start to protect themselves.

Here goes.

419 scams

Most people have heard of the “419” or “advance fee” scams. These are named after Section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code which outlaws “obtaining property by false pretences”. These scams begin with an unexpected email from a total stranger. This tells you of a large amount of money that is “trapped” somewhere and that you have been chosen to help them transfer the money out of the country. In exchange for your co-operation you are offered a large chunk of the cash.

When you contact them you are then led through a series of steps that boosts your confidence in the deal. Then, just before you get your hands on this non-existent money, there is a hitch. In order to process the payment you have to pay a third party for something. It might be legal fees, an export fee or a bribe to an intermediary. This is what the scam is all about. As soon as you pay this advance fee the scammers disappear completely, never to be heard from again.

Thousands of people from around the world have fallen for this scam and although estimates vary it’s likely that hundreds of millions of dollars have been taken from victims.


This is a very modern version of an old-fashioned deception. This usually starts as an email from what seems to be your bank asking you to visit a web site to confirm your personal or banking details for security reasons. The link in the email will actually direct you to a fake version of your bank’s web site. It will have been very cleverly constructed to look exactly like the real thing but in fact all it wants is for you to enter your username and password so that the authors can then use them to steal your money from your bank's real web site.

Phishing is very easy to avoid if you obey one very simple rule. Never, under any circumstances, click on a link in an email from what seems to be your bank. Your bank will never ask you to do this.

Job offers

We had several of these last year. An email arrives from what appears to be a recruitment agency in some far-flung, exotic place offering you a high-paid job. In fact this is almost exactly the same as the 419 scam. Once you have started a dialogue with the so-called agency you’ll be required to send them money, either as a fee or for the costs of your travel to the exotic place they tempt you with. There is no job, just profit for the scammers.

Lottery scams

It doesn't matter whether you learn about it from an email or a text message but you will never, EVER win a lottery that you didn't enter. One reader came to us with a text message saying they'd won a Toyota Landcruiser but when we called the number it turned out we either had to travel to Nairobi to pick it up or the scammer would have it shipped to us by “the next day”. Quite how a car can be transported from Nairobi to Gaborone in 24 hours is beyond us. However, this doesn’t matter because the car didn't exist. We know this we actually called the crook twice, each time with a different caller. Funnily enough they had both won the same car. Curious, don't you think?

We had more calls from people who had received emails saying that they had won cash lotteries, some in countries they had never even been to. Again, when we called them it was surprising how many of us had all won the same lottery.

I can understand how it must be tempting to fall for this but this is also one of the simpler scams to spot. You can't win a lottery you haven't entered.

Nutritional advice

We all have to be VERY sceptical about anyone who tells us what to eat and drink. In particular don’t trust anyone who says you have to take pills or “supplements” to help you live healthily. Unless you are pregnant, already ill, or very frail there is nothing you need to add to a healthy diet. Absolutely nothing.

Anyone presenting themselves as a nutritionist should be approached with profound caution. These are often people without any real qualifications, without any real professional body to regulate them and without any mechanism for assessing their skills.

Not long ago a woman in the UK ended up in intensive care after she had seizures and suffered permanent brain damage that were brought on by the high water intake diet a nutritionist quack recommended. That was just the effect of water, imagine if the quack had suggested something more potent.

If you think you need professional advice on your diet then see your doctor first of all. Trust them to recommend a specialist dietician if they themselves can’t give you the advice you need.

The lesson?

The only way to prevent yourself from falling victim to a scam is to use the skeptical parts of your brain. Just because someone SAYS something, doesn’t make it true. Engage your brain, question everything and never believe the unbelievable.

This week’s stars!
  • Cherie, Rachel and the team at Connect Resources for excellent service.

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