Loose Wire — Tea, Sympathy And Service
Frustrated by the poor response to my own e-mail enquiries to big companies — I’m not naming names here, except to say I’m still waiting for replies from the likes of 3Com, Fujitsu and Linksys — I figured things might work better if I metamorphosed into Ethel M. Girdle, a septuagenarian who claims to have typed her way through World War II while flying Spitfire fighter aircraft and is a dab hand at growing roses and laying on tea parties for the local pastor.
First stop for Ethel was fixing her Zanussi dishwasher. “Hello, young man (or lady),” she wrote to the customer-service centre in Britain. “My washer makes a noise like one of those newfangled leafblower things and my crockery doesn’t get clean. Can you send one of your nice young chaps round to fix it, I’m having the vicar for tea on Friday and if he sees the china in this state he’ll think I’ve gone over to the other side. Yours, Mrs. Girdle.” Zanussi responded with impressive speed and grasp of the gravity of the situation. “Dear Mrs. Girdle,” they wrote. “Sorry to hear of the problems that you are experiencing with your dishwasher, if you would kindly let me have your postcode I will be able to look up the details of your nearest service centre for you so that one of our engineers can come and repair your appliance so that your china gets nice and clean again.”
My own experience of airlines and the Internet has been woeful, so I was interested to see how my fictional friend got on. She wanted to visit her grandson and fired off e-mails to several airlines: “I’m coming to Hong Kong/Sydney/Tokyo/Singapore to see my grandson, who is doing a grand job running one of your banks. This is not the first time I’ve flown (I used to fly during the war, don’t you know) but it’s been a while. Is it OK to bring my cocker spaniel, Poppy? He won’t be any trouble, unless you’ve got rabbits on the aircraft! And may I bring my own teapot on board? I do like a cup of tea in the afternoon.”
Ethel’s still waiting to hear from Japan Airlines and Qantas, while British Airways’ Web site had no functioning e-mail address for ordinary folk. Singapore Airlines offered a form letter, Cathay Pacific was somewhat intimidating: “Please kindly note that domestic animals of any description are not permitted to be carried in the passenger cabin on any Cathay Pacific flights.” But Virgin Atlantic rose to the occasion well: “I can assure you that our crew will make sure you receive a nice cup of tea on the flight or more than one in fact! It would not be necessary to take a teapot with you. Unfortunately Virgin Atlantic do not have a licence to carry pets of any description, even though I am sure he is no trouble.”
Next, Ethel decided to buy a computer. “I need the following,” she e-mailed IBM: “A nice keyboard (if possible an electric one, the manual ones tire me out) and a nice screen to look at. Could I use my TV instead, and save a few dimes? It’s a big one, though black and white and takes forever to warm up. My grandson says I need a CD drive but I think I can just drag the stereo over and plug it into the computer, yes?”
IBM were very helpful. “Please note that all our NetVista (desktops) come with a standard keyboard. However, we are unsure of what you mean by “electric” vs. “manual”, they wrote, before gently pointing out that hooking up her black-and-white TV and CD player to the PC was a no-no.
Encouraged, Ethel went back for advice on the Internet: “Do I need some sort of passport, or special goggles, or something? My grandson says the connections are very fast these days, I don’t want to mess up my hair.” IBM was reassuring, saying a passport wouldn’t be necessary.
Overall, I was impressed. Customer service on-line has a long way to go — shame on those companies that didn’t reply — but at least there are some bright and helpful folk at the end of those e-mail addresses. And for those of you not getting customer satisfaction on-line, feel free to impersonate Ethel. I know I will.
Loose Wire — Calling All Suckers
At least, that was what was going through my mind when I decided to respond to one of a new wave of so-called 419ers. These missives, named after a clause in Nigeria’s penal code, used to arrive as mail. In the old days postal companies would intercept them — easy to spot with their fake stamps — and use them, literally, as landfill.
These days free e-mail accounts allow any aspiring fraudster with access to an Internet cafe to try their hand. Where they used to be from purported Nigerian officials with access to siphoned or missing funds, now you’re just as likely to get e-mails about unclaimed millions found by special forces in Afghan caves. All you, dear reader, have to do is give a bank account number and, er, the money is yours.
But, I reasoned, such e-mails couldn’t all be scams, surely? Okay, I’ve read of people being fleeced for thousands of dollars. Sure, the United States Secret Service receives 100 phone calls a day from potential victims, and estimates some $750 million is lost globally each year. Sure, Nigerian money-related fraud is the fastest growing on-line scam, according to the National Consumers League.
But, what the hell, I reasoned, I’ll give this one a shot. Besides, the addressee was none other than Dr. Maryam Abacha, the widow of Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s ruler from 1993-98. “Dr. Abacha,” I learned from the Internet, is a light-complexioned beauty of Shuwa Arab stock. She also popularized the Aso-Oke by wearing it to official functions, but I’m not quite sure what an Aso-Oke is. More relevantly, the Nigerian government in April said it had reached a deal where the Abacha family would hand over $1 billion, and keep $100 million, in return for an end to criminal proceedings into the embezzlement of government funds.
Given this, I was delighted to be approached by such a fine person, and was only slightly intimidated by Mrs. Abacha’s insistence on WRITING HER E-MAILS IN CAPITALS. All I had to do was help her smuggle $85 million into my bank account, and I would get 15% of the proceeds. That should make my bank manager happy, I thought. I immediately dashed off an offer of help, but to be on the safe side, used a pseudonym: “Thanks for your e-mail and I’m very excited to be able to help you and get absurdly rich as well,” I wrote. “Could you send a picture, so I know what you’re like? I’m single too, so maybe we could hang out. Yours, Egbert Dimple.”
My new penmate wasted no time, sending me a picture of Abacha in swaying gowns — it might have been the Aso-Oke — answering the phone. I was hooked. “I like the outfit. It must be hard to stay looking nice with all this trouble going on. I know this may sound odd, but do you think it would be possible for us to start dating at some point, with your husband no longer on this Earth?” This seemed to cause some surprise. “I really don’t know you so much to start talking about dating. And I can’t say for now if that could work or not,” she wrote.
Sensing an opening, I sent back a picture — not of myself, for modesty’s sake, but a random photo culled from a Google search of the keyword “hunk.” Mrs. Abacha, if it was she, was impressed. “You are a good-looking young man. But don’t you think that we are drifting away from our original objective? Can you come to Nigeria? I will really like to see you but that will be after we have completed this project so we can have enough money to spend.”
And so I’m confident that by the time you read this I will be flush with cash and living on a desert island, surrounded by bodyguards and people wearing the Aso-Oke. Of course, I’m aware that the risk is high: Many of those persuaded to visit Nigeria by such folk end up fleeced, murdered or missing. But I’m sure that won’t happen to me.