Online scams are not just preserve of really gullible
One in four of us is duped by bogus emails that can only change your life for the worse, writes Roisin Burke
Published 17/04/2011 | 05:00
Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Lovely spam! So the Monty Python gang sang. It's not so lovely though, in the modern context, where spam isn't a canned meat but a cyber menace.
For many of us in an office setting, hardly a day goes by when we're not being proffered anything from a hot date to huge wealth via an email from a stranger.
While most of these are obvious chicanery and laughable, some are rather targeted and clever.
I was, as you can imagine, jubilant to receive an email in Irish recently telling me that I had won €850,000 in the Spanish Sweepstakes. I'm still here, chained to my laptop, so you can deduce how bona fide that one was, even though it was written in the Teanga Naisiunta.
New research from the National Consumer Agency (NCA) shows that one in four people targeted by a scam tried to participate in it, and two-thirds of them either lost money or compromised their personal information in the process. Email is the number one scamming channel, the NCA found.
In my own email inbox I'm regularly bombarded with messages flogging products to "enhance your manhood". I was beginning to get a bit of a complex until I learned that my friend Cormac frequently gets emails suggesting he buy breast enlargement pills.
Then there are the get-rich quick gambits. A recent email from "financial attorney" Santiago Hermano Ibanez tells me he represents a "government minister from a developing country" who wants to start, of all things, a trucking business. He needs me to front the company and I'll get €15.8m for my trouble. I can't wait! I just need to deposit a few grand with Santiago as a show of good faith first, of course.
If this sounds daft to you, bear in mind more than one in 10 Irish people have handed over money to 'get rich quick' scams like these.
Scams that hijack your email address book are possibly the most invasive and distressing. A respected Dublin newspaper cartoonist may be unaware that he's currently recommending that everyone in his address book buy computers from an extremely dodgy-looking website with an address in Shanghai.
The chairman of a heritage group in the midlands might not realise that he's emailing everyone to say he's been "rubbed [sic] by gunpoint" in Athens and his cards and money "were collected by criminals". Painful enough to be rubbed at gunpoint, but the poor sod doesn't even have enough money to get to the embassy to get a temporary passport. He needs my financial assistance, €950 or whatever I can afford to wire by Western Union, which he'll be repaying with interest.
I decided to try and turn the tables on the chairman impersonator. "No problem!" I responded. "In fact, I'll send you €2,000, just in case."
I strung him along for a few days, telling him I had wired money to different Western Union offices all over Athens before Mr Chairman stopped emailing.
I corresponded with a few more of these spoofers to learn a bit more about how they operate.
I hope I'm not doing Valentin, the supposedly impoverished Russian schoolboy with the blind mother who needs money for a wood stove for winter (in April), a disservice, but I suspect he is a con artist, unless there is amazingly handy access to credit card facilities in the rural Urals. Plus €5,000 "by Mastercard or American express please, thanks you" strikes me as a bit steep for a stove.
While the NCA research shows you don't have to be especially gullible to fall victim, vulnerable people can be more of a target.
Suzanne (not her real name) discovered her 15-year-old son was chatting on Yahoo Instant Messenger with 'Arlene from Atlanta, Georgia'. "She popped up a greeting while my son was online and, naively, he accepted her as a friend on Messenger and responded," she says. "Innocent cyber chit-chat soon led to a request for money. Happily my son doesn't have a credit card so he couldn't oblige. That's when he confessed all to me," says Suzanne. "I was pretty horrified."
Scam emails tailored to the Irish market are increasingly common. One that looks like it comes from the legitimate Revenue.ie address tells me I'm due a tax refund of €734.21. Hurray! I just have to email back a 'tax refund request' with my bank account details.
In the immortal words of Judge Judy, "If it doesn't make sense, it's probably not true."