Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How Nigerian scams keep persuading the vulnerable

Nigerian or advance fee - 419 scams have been around for decades (see Glickman 2005).  They usually contain a story of a bank official who has spotted an account with funds that are unclaimed and needs someone to help him get the money out of the account without it being in his name. This is somewhat illegal and he needs help of someone who can receive the money in their account and be paid for it.  Sometimes it is a royal person, a distant prince, rich widow unable to leave money to anyone, someone dying of cancer with wealth to give away and so on.   Once the victim replies, they request conversations, befriending the victim and eventually ask for fees to process legal papers.  The victim never sees the money they were promised.  Worse still, sometimes the victim will receive a fake cheque and cash it, wire the money to the person that is asking them to launder money and then find out the cheque was fake after few days, losing funds they sent. 
Sometimes victims are not even after money but simply believe they are helping the person as the stories are often elaborate.  In the past, Nigerian scams were executed via postal means, incurring a cost to the scammer.  With the invention of the fax and the phone, they became more prevalent and the Internet finally allowed them to become almost an everyday occurrence for most people while not costing much to execute.  Research also stipulates that they are now so well known that they are purposely used to identify the most vulnerable victims, whose details are then sold to other scammers too. 

Recently I have been contacted by someone asking me to warn about a scam purporting to be a girl from a refugee camp, but upon reading the email, I realised it was a spin off, a Nigerian type scam with a new twist to fit the current times. 
Briefly, the story is about a girl who is in a Syrian refugee camp and needs someone to help her get the money that her late and wealthy father deposited in the bank. This is a complex story and I decided to explain why it is complex and how it is written with a view to persuade in the future.  The initial emails asks only that the victim listens to the story but even acknowledging the email might be dangerous if you are uncomfortable saying no. Here is why:

The story starts with an account how the girl lost her mother and father to a violent murder and her consequent life in a refugee camp.  She prays to get out of her situation.  Without explaining what she wants from the victim yet, she asks for trust and not to be betrayed and asks to know more about the potential victim.  This part is likely to elicit empathy towards her situation - who would not feel empathy when someone tells you about their parents' murder.  Asking to know about you is likely to induce feelings of familiarity and closeness, as if you are friends, once you share this information and people help their friends.  She asks for trust and not to be betrayed. You may not think about these words at this point but when the request comes you may feel uncomfortable saying no, because you will feel as if you are betraying her, despite the doubts you might feel. 

Second part tells more about her situation in the camp and the pastor who is helping her to email a random person across the globe.  It also gives the pastor's telephone number.  The victim will probably not use it but if they do, it will add credibility to the story. Here is a quote;

"My Dearest, please I want to go back to my studies because i only attended my first year before the tragic incident that lead to my being in this situation now took place. Please listen to this, please it's a secret, even no one knows about it except the Reverend that knows about it"

The endearments used are to evoke feelings of closeness, the mention of the secret too - we tell secrets to those we are close to so potential victim might feel privileged they were entrusted with the secret.  She then explains about her father's fund that contains millions, that she cannot access and makes a request.

"So i will like you to help me transfer this money to your account and from it you can send some money for me to get my traveling documents and air ticket to come over to meet with you. I kept this secret to people in the camp here the only person that knows about it is the Reverend because he is like a father to me. So in the light of above i will like you to keep it to yourself and don't tell it to anyone for i am afraid of loosing my life and the money if people gets to know about it."

Scammers often put victims in a position of trust, by making themselves appear vulnerable. This gives the victim a feeling of power but in reality, the scammer holds all the strings.  The girl in this story follows up by reminding you that she requested you to be trustworthy.  I particularly like this sentence;

" Remember i am giving you all this information due to the trust i deposed on you. I like honest and understanding people, truthful and a man of vision, hardworking and GOD fearing people."

We all like to think of ourselves as honest and understanding people. And hardworking. Some people are also religious and they will relate to this aspect.  Scammers are good at altercasting. Altercasting, a persuasion technique, is where a person puts the victim in a specific position, often targeting the ego of the person (look at the quote above, calling for a man of vision) or social norms (understanding and honest people). 

There are people out there that may not be very Internet savvy, such as elderly people, who would see this plea and think of ways of helping.  At this point the letter does not ask anything but to get in touch for her to tell you her story but you can bet your life at some point the victim will be asked to part with some money, usually to pay a solicitor to prepare legal papers to transfer the money.  The scammers build up a rapport before they ask for funds, in order for the victim to feel they have to help as they have some sort of relationship or a friendship by this point.  

What I wanted to show with these few bits from the lengthy email is how scammers lay the ground. The email is often benign and mysterious and someone who is not very familiar with phishing emails and scams might respond to find out more.  Often these scams are praying upon social norms of being being helpful and nice.  By replying to the email, the target enters another stage where the familiarity and reciprocity are played upon. They will tell the potential victim about themselves but also ask about the victim's life, which often appears sincere and goes to enhance the trust.  By repeating they asked for trust over and over, the potential victim will unconsciously start to feel uneasy every time they feel they want to stop the process.  It is called priming.  They are priming the victim to comply at a later date without  them being conscious of it happening.   If they want to exit by this point, the potential victim will feel they are betraying someone who is vulnerable and feel uncomfortable about it, often despite seeing the warning signs as the story becomes more complicated.  In many cases the scammers will drown the victim in fake legal papers and documents and there have been cases where people have signed power of attorney to their finances without being aware of it due to the amount of the paperwork they were asked to sign. 
Successful scammers play a long game.  That is why they are successful.  The best thing you can do is try to understand how different scams work and what they target.  Nigerian scams tend to target desirable human traits such as being helpful (when a widow asks for help with finding honourable causes to donate her wealth to) and sometimes greed (when the corrupt bank official asks for help to extract money out of the bank, for which the victim is promised a payment).  Different scams target different things.  One universal advice would always be in control. Don't reply if you are uncomfortable saying no when you start suspecting something or having second thoughts. Change your number if they are harassing you or ask your relative or a friend to call them and tell them you rang the police and reported it.  Share your doubts with friends and family who will advise you.  But most of all, if a stranger emails you out of the blue, ignore the email. 

Glickman, H. (2005). The Nigerian “419” advance fee scams: prank or peril?.Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue canadienne des √©tudes africaines39(3), 460-489.