Friday, 4 July 2014

Don't believe it!

A couple of weeks ago a story from the USA went viral. A little girl called Victoria Wilcher was apparently taken by her grandmother to a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken. A family pit bull terrier had previously attacked the girl and her face was seriously scarred as a result. That’s what the grandmother said led to a KFC employees telling the grandmother: “We have to ask you to leave because her face is disrupting our customers.”

Needless to say the reaction around the world was overwhelming and KFC soon faced huge embarrassment and potentially enormous damage to their reputation and their business. This is the sort of story that can ruin a business, even one as large and omnipresent as KFC.

Within days KFC had formally apologized and donated $30,000 to the family towards the girl’s medical bills and a public appeal soon raised another $100,000. So far this looked like a happy ending.

KFC clearly had to investigate how such a dreadful thing had occurred and deal with the employee who had been so unbelievably rude. That’s when the truth began to emerge.

It turns out that there was no evidence that this event had ever occurred. None of the KFC branches in the area could find any trace of the grandmother and little girl from their CCTV cameras. None of them had any record of any branch selling the particular food items they claim to have purchased.

All the evidence shows that the grandmother completely fabricated this story, presumably to raise attention and money. Understandably a lot of people are very angry, mainly those who donated money but also those people around the world who felt sympathy and outrage on behalf of the apparently abused young girl. There’s even anger from people like me who saw the story, spread it on Facebook and commented on how KFC had extricated themselves from the public relations disaster.

It’s yet another lesson for all of us that we should all be a bit more skeptical about the stories we read in newspapers, on the TV and radio and, above all, on the internet.

Being a skeptic can save you not just from fake stories like this one but also can also save you time and money.

My dictionary defines a skeptic as “a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions”. Wikipedia describes skepticism in a bit more detail as “any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.”

The problem for consumers is that we are surrounded by organizations that are doing their best to persuade us to buy their products rather than those of their competitors. There are also people who are doing their best to steal our money based on their lies and deceptions.

A few days ago we heard from a reader who said:
“I received an email saying that I have won a huge amount of money in a world cup lottery. This was from Camelot UK national lottery. The claims finance manager was named as Ron J Marshall of tel no +447924551455 and email address of capitalfinance@mail.com. The online project coordinator is Cordelia F. Swanton at ukcamelotprogramm@hispavista.com.”
He continued:
“I wish to be helped to see if this may be a legitimate organization or a scam as I’m required to pay 0.1% of my winnings in advance, for the funds to be released. I would appreciate it if you could come to my aid.”
Clearly this reader needs to work on his skepticism, don’t you think?

There are several clues that I think a skeptic would notice. Firstly, and most importantly, you can’t win a lottery you didn’t enter, that’s just not how lotteries work. Lotteries don’t pick random strangers to win their money. No, they just don’t.

A skeptic would probably think that an email from Camelot (who do in fact run the UK lottery) would come from an email address like xxx@camelot.com or xxx@camelot.co.uk and not from a free email address.

Then there’s the phone number they gave. I think a skeptic would have spent a few minutes on Google learning that any UK cell number that begins with “+447” is a cellphone number (the “7” is the clue). Real companies have landline numbers.

Finally there’s the 0.1% they say they want as a commission. Most lottery scams say that you’ve won between £500,000 and £1 million so 0.1% would mean you have to pay them between P7,500 and P15,000. That’s what the whole thing is all about, that’s what they want and what they’ll lie and cheat to get their hands on. A skeptic would have asked why a lottery company that claims someone has won a fortune would demand that the winner pays them some money first.

But skeptics aren’t the target for these scammers. On the contrary, scammers actively seek out people who are NOT skeptical. A researcher from Microsoft, Cormac Herley, pointed out that scammers do their very best to weed out the skeptics in their first email. By making the clues as obvious as possible, every skeptic will reject it immediately, leaving only the na├»ve and gullible potential victims behind. The scammer won’t waste any of him time trying to persuade skeptics to part with their money because they’ve already ruled themselves out.

As Herley said, the:
“initial email is effectively the attacker’s classifier: it determines who responds, and thus who the scammer attacks (i.e., enters into email conversation with). The goal of the email is not so much to attract viable users as to repel the non-viable ones, who greatly outnumber them.”
So there’s the evidence. Skepticism is your greatest shield against abuse. Get some now while you still can. If you can’t find any remember you can always borrow ours.

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