Friday 14 August 2009

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

The last few weeks have seen a huge range of scams but best of all there’s been a real backlash against them. Finally the authorities are taking action and arresting some of the crooks but better still we’ve seen something amazing.

A number of consumers contacted Consumer Watchdog alerting US to scams. These sceptical consumers had worked out for themselves that what they had seen was a scam and didn’t need our help. Many of them said that it was the details we’d given in The Voice that had educated them. They said that it was this column amongst others that had prepared them. They asked that we again cover again what consumers should look out for.

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 cooperation you are offered the chance to keep 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, that often gives you a solid hint that what you are doing is illegal and gets your total commitment to 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 just a bribe to an intermediary. This is what the scam is all about. As soon as you pay this advance fee the people disappear completely, never to be heard from again.


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 the real web site.

Phishing is very easy to avoid if you obey one very simple rule. Never, ever, 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

These are the most common ones these days. An email arrives from what appears to be a recruitment agency in some far-flung 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 end up having to send them money, either as a fee or for the costs of your travel to the exotic place they tempt you with.

How to spot a scam

So what tools and techniques can you use to spot a scam? Is it difficult to know when someone’s trying to rip you off? Luckily there are some obvious clues you can spot and some easy tricks you can use.


It doesn’t matter what language it’s written in, but every email we’ve seen from scammers has terrible spelling and grammar. They are clearly written by people who aren’t using their first language. It’s surprising considering that every computer these days had a built-in spell checker but scammers don’t seem to care.

It may seem pompous but you should be skeptical of people who can’t spell when they invite you to part with your money.

Free email accounts

There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail email account. Most of us have one that we use when we’re away from the office or home or when our normal email has gone wrong. It’s perfectly OK. But a real business doesn’t use them. A real business will use a commercial email domain. That’s the part of the email address after the @ symbol. Look carefully to see what that domain is and them make a judgement on how trustworthy it looks.


A genuine offer of a product or service that is real will say so clearly, obviously and without any vagueness. It will be perfectly clear what is on offer.

Use the Internet

Go to Google and search for the name of the person or company who emailed you. If it has more than one word in the title put in quotes. Search for something like “John Major Foundation” in quotes. Then do an identical search but put words like “scam” “complaint” and “problem” at the end of your search. Almost certainly someone else will have discovered it’s a scam before you and done the neighbourly thing by posting a report on the internet.

Consumer Watchdog

Use us. We’re professional skeptics. Feel free to call or email us and ask for advice. It’s entirely free and we’ll do our best to tell you whether we think you’re being scammed.

Be skeptical

Switch on the skeptical part of your brain. Then never switch it off again. Right now there is someone out there who will try to scam you out of your money. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Nigerian 419 scammer, a dubious investment scheme, a pyramid selling scheme or a fake preacher in a Mercedes, they want your money and the best weapon you have is your brain.

Use it!

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