Friday 5 September 2014

It's not funny

A lot of what we see at Consumer Watchdog is amusing.

However that might just be a reaction to some of the more absurd things we encounter. Our natural response is often to laugh rather than shout and scream and wave our fists around.

A few days ago a crook, liar and abuser of women calling himself "Healer Nkunumbi” managed to sneak past our extensive Facebook group screening process and posted a message in the Consumer Watchdog group, selling his preposterous services.

His claims were certainly extraordinary. His post said this:
"lost lover, Marriage problems, stop your partner from cheating on you, Men and women who can’t have Babies. Breast, Hips, Bums, penis cream/. Business boost, Penis Enlargement and power in all sizes. Win court cases, promotion at work. Is your situation getting worse? Find us in Gaborone, Botswana Cell phone: +267 75988645"

The reaction from other members of our Facebook group was predictable. A mixture of outrage, surprise and sarcasm with comments like:
"This should be illegal"
"Move over you marriage counsellors, fertility specialists, plastic surgeons, business coaches/mentors, lawyers, etc., this Healer Nkunumbi fellow is all that and more."
"Lets see your penis then we'll know you mean business lol"
"u got to give it to him though, he got balls,of steel, advertising scam on a page that seeks to protect people from scammers, thats like selling weed in a court of law"
" how did he manage to join this group? should be arrested"
"This guy has solutions to some of people's biggest problems, he should be the world's richest person!"
"'Penis enlargement & power in all sizes' this 1 kills me,i cnt stop laughing"
"The irony of it is that end of the day not only he doesn't heal anyone but it's the naive people who fall for him that heal his pockets and solve his money problems"
As you can see members of the Consumer Watchdog Facebook group are a smart bunch of skeptics.

We called "Healer Nkunumbi" to hear what he said. You can listen to the 4-minute call made by a colleague who pretended to be having problems getting pregnant if you visit our blog or Facebook group.

Of course this is all very silly and humorous. "Healer Nkunumbi" is a rather comical character with his preposterous claims and his ridiculous offers of miracle remedies.

But he’s not just funny. He’s also dangerous.

I worry about the vulnerable people who might, as a result of desperation and despair, resort to his offerings. A woman with fertility problems or an illness might be tempted to give him a try if everything else has failed. So where’s the harm in that, you might ask, if everything else has failed?

The first potential harm is doubt. Who actually is this guy? What are his qualifications? What skills does he actually have, if any? We have no real idea what and who he is.

Then there’s the chance that he might actually do something rather than just talking about it. When he sees a woman with fertility problems is he going to examine her? Is he going to touch her? Given the nature of her problems a real doctor would obviously do a detailed physical examination so he’s probably going to feel like he should do so too. How would you react if you heard that an unknown man had touched your mother, sister, daughter or partner in such a way? I know what my reaction would be.

Then there’s the risk that he’ll offer her some sort of treatment for her condition and who knows what that might be. Chances are it’s be some entirely useless herbal concoction but there’s a chance whatever he gives her might actually have an effect and that’s dangerous.

Unlike the Panado you buy from a pharmacy where you can be certain that every tablet contains exactly 500mg of paracetamol, you have no idea what so-called traditional healers are giving you or what effect it might have. That’s why the majority of people see no effect whatsoever and the rest often end up dead.

I often find myself going through the same thought process when we encounter a scammer. Of course their stories are ridiculous and we have a lot of fun calling them and baiting them but that often overlooks the pain and suffering they cause. They obviously cause financial hardship when they steal money from their victims but there’s also the romantic scammers who break someone’s heart along the way. Yes, of course the victims are often enormously gullible but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer.

It’s ironic that sometimes the funnier and more extraordinary the scam appears the more successful it will be.

A researcher from Microsoft, Cormac Herley, pointed out (pdf download) that scammers do their very best to exclude skeptics in their first email. By making the clues as comically obvious as possible, every person possessing even just a trace of skepticism will reject it immediately, leaving only the na├»ve and gullible potential victims behind. The scammer won’t waste any of his 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.”
That’s the challenge to us all. To remember that behind every comical story of abuse there’s often abuse, tragedy and exploitation.

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