Friday 8 May 2009

Viral scammers

There’s a scene in The Matrix, which if you haven’t seen your kids probably have, when one of the bad guys tells one of the heroes that “human beings are a virus”. His point is that humans are destructive, spread uncontrollably and are just plain damaging.

That, of course, is just from a film and said by a baddie to make a dramatic point. However I think it can be said truthfully about scammers.

Like viruses, scammers are malign. They do damage, they hurt us, they destroy our ability to live and they deserve all our efforts to eliminate them like the disease-causing vermin they are.

Critically though, and this is my very impressive link to a current news story, scammers adapt and evolve like viruses.

Like flu it seems that scammers can evolve remarkably quickly and reappear in new, more challenging forms to infect us. Swine flu has recently emerged as what most of think as a new form of flu but in fact it’s just a “reassortment” of (experts currently believe) 4 other types of flu viruses. That seems to be one of the remarkably clever things about the flu virus. If a creature is simultaneously infected with two forms of flu, the genes from the two can mix together to form a third form of the virus. Of course it’s unlikely that any person will get two forms of the flu at the same time but in a world of billions of people it’s going to happen sooner or later. Hence this recent form of swine flu.

Scammers also evolve. Their sneaky tricks don’t just stay the same, some die out, others adapt and improve.

These days there are surprisingly few of the traditional Nigerian “419” scams. These older scams almost always followed a simple approach. You would get an email from someone claiming to be the widow, son, daughter, business partner or lawyer of a deceased businessman who had left a fortune in a bank account that required a foreigner to remove the money. There would be a hint of illegality about the transaction that would encourage you to keep quiet about the whole idea. The scam would come shortly afterwards when, in order to actually get your hands on the fictitious money, you would be asked to pay an “advance fee”. This usually took the form of a legal fee, a tax or duty or a fee to an intermediary. Of course when you’ve sent with this sum to the scammers they’ll go quiet on you.

But we all know about this now. That’s why the smarter scammers have moved on to other ideas.

I’ve written before about some of the tricks they’ve come up with instead and you can see these on our web site. All of them are “advance fee” scams but the story they use to trick you is different each time. There was the scam we discovered that pretended there was an AIDS conference in London to which the victims had been invited. All their expenses would be paid by a fictitious organisation, the victims just had to pay their accommodation costs up front. Of course, as with a conventional 419 scam that was what the scammers were after.

Most recently the scammers seem to have moved on to recruitment-based scams. In the last couple of months we’ve uncovered a variety of scams that pretend the victim has been selected for a range of high-paying jobs around the world. A group calling themselves “ITA Work and Travel” have been emailing people saying they’ve been selected for jobs on cruise ships in exotic parts of the world. Again, there’s a fee to pay up front, this time $350 as a registration fee. One victim who has already been conned managed to get a “visa” from the US embassy in Pretoria saying she could go to work there. When we showed this to the US embassy in Gaborone they told us immediately that it was a fake. Of course we knew that, you don’t ever get a visa by email and we could tell it had been adjusted on a computer but it was nice to have the experts that it was false.

Another scam that was forwarded to us was similar but offered jobs as au pairs in the UK. Same idea, same unrealistic salary opportunities, same poor use of English, the same unbelievable offers.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve received two new offers, each seemingly related to the current financial crisis. One offered me a loan “to both companies and Individual at interest rate of 3% even with bad credit”. Of course, you can tell that as soon as I make contact with them there’ll be an “advance fee” for some reason. Again the same clues are there, the poor English, the email from nowhere and the complete lack of credibility.

The last one explicitly referred to the looming recession. Claiming to be from a contractor in Hong Kong, it said:

“The statistics shows that the Economy of your country is getting better and will be more profitable in few years to come. I do hereby wish to let you know that I am interested to invest in your country through you… with the Sum of Sixteen Million, five Hundred Thousand US Dollars that I would like to invest in your country if possible.”

Different message, same scam. Sooner or later can’t you tell that there will be a demand for money up front?

Like a virus, the best way to stay healthy is to avoid infection in the first place. Ignore these emails and dump them in the bin as soon as you receive them or alternatively. Put a condom on your computer before you pick up your email.

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