Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Are you being scammed?

Scams are part of everyday life.  Your inbox holds the key to making a sweet partnership with the Nigerian prince, lottery you won without buying a ticket or a spiritual healer that can, for a fee, change your destiny and transform you into anything you wish.  Many of us have had our identity stolen at least.  That feeling of dread when you see your credit card statement and you cannot remember buying that awesome hi-fi system, a new mobile phone and Eurostar tickets to Paris… Scams have a long history.  Do you remember the unlucky coyote in the cartoon, who would order various devices from the Acme catalogue, full of hope only to have them fall short in some way... and we laughed as children at his inability to catch the roadrunner totally missing the shoddy practices employed by Acme.  Do you remember Emperor’s new clothes?  No you don’t, because he wasn’t wearing any… he was scammed.  Perhaps these stories are told because they have always been a part of human existence.

Almost everyone has heard of Nigerian, also called, 419 scams. They are often seen as ridiculous and usually involve some high-ranking African bank official or, if you are lucky, a prince or a king that desperately needs help to get his millions out of the country and is asking for your help. You can share the millions by sending a small admin fee, which is usually not small and this will allow the money to be deposited into your bank account. Fake documents are usually drawn to represent the agreement to share the money.   Despite the elaborate and highly unlikely stories that go along with these scams, the figure given by The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) report in 2006 was 70 000 people in UK alone, who have fallen prey to this type of scam.

Nigerian scams have been around for a long time. Before the invention of the Internet, people received letters containing scenarios like this, and with the invention of the fax machine and the telephone, it became even easier to reach victims. But it is only since the invention of the Internet, that targeting a large number of potential victims has become virtually cost free to the scammer.  Sending an email is free and it can be done by a computer program generating random emails.  However, although an initial email is relatively cost free, any subsequent communication with the victim implies a cost to a scammer, especially if you want to get the victim to comply with the request for money. Asking for money too soon may alienate potential victims, therefore building interpersonal relationship with the victim is important. But this takes time and effort.  Despite the prevalent publicity that anything coming from Nigeria into your inbox should be deleted without reading, Nigerian scams are still around and thriving.   Internet security experts have hypothesised that Nigerian scams are now used as fishing expeditions to snare the most vulnerable and gullible victims, whose details are then sold for profit to other scammers and these victims are then sent various other scams. Targeting the right person ensures that the cost to the scammer is kept to a minimum.

Scams also take many forms and almost everyone has, at one point or another, been a victim of fraud or a scam.  Dating scams, clairvoyant scams, miracle cures, investment scams, get rich and self-help workshops that cost thousands of pounds, bogus lotteries, fake auctions, phishing scams and so on.  Although there are obvious vulnerable groups that fall prey to scams, such as elderly people or those with impaired cognitive function, it is important to be aware that anyone can get scammed. Even without active participation with the scammer, people can still get scammed without their knowledge, through fake cash point machines or by their identities being stolen.  Many scammers make websites that look identical to the real ones, so even when they don’t come to you, you may, inadvertently come to them.
Although omnipresent, security warnings are simply not enough to protect us from harm when it comes to scams. The lists of ‘don’ts’ rarely take into an account that scams are becoming more sophisticated.  For example, dating scams are executed over a period of time.  The scammer invests time and effort to build an interpersonal relationship with the victim, frequently giving some elaborate excuse why the meeting cannot take place, such as them being a soldier or a volunteer doctor in another country.  When they ask for money, it is not for them, but rather for the plane ticket so they can finally meet the victim. The victim may have some reservations, but by this time they may also have strong feelings due to lengthy conversations with the scammer, making it harder to say no and victims only realise they have been scammed months down the line, often after they have been victimised repeatedly.  Some scams, such as investment scams, purposely drown victims in useless paperwork that needs to be signed so eventually the victim may end up signing something they did not properly read, giving the scammer the power of attorney to rob them.

What is shocking is that majority of scams will never be prosecuted because they are classed as civil action. This means it is up to the victim to pursue the legal proceedings against the scammer. This is the last thing you want to hear after being robbed and it certainly isn’t something a burglary victim is told, so why is it acceptable that scams are not taken as seriously as other crimes? Often victims do not get offered much support unless they go to court. In order for the case to reach the courts, the governmental agencies must decide if the scam/fraud is in the public interest. For many victims, this is not what happens. Sadly, many victims are simply left with only the bitter memories, blaming themselves without any real understanding how scams work and whom they particularly target.

Button, M., Tapley, J., & Lewis, C. (2013). The ‘fraud justice network’ and the infra-structure of support for individual fraud victims in England and Wales. Criminology and Criminal Justice13(1), 37-61.
Herley, C. (2012). Why do Nigerian Scammers say they are from Nigeria? Microsof research,  In WEIS.
Office of Fair Trading (OFT) (2006). Research on Impact of Mass Marketed Scams.

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