Tag Archives: Nigeria

Obese Texters, Back to the Future, and Scams

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at about 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

Texting reduces obesity

If your kids are getting a little overweight, then treat them to a bit of texting. But it’s not quite how it sounds (I thought it might be something to do with the aerobic workout you get from the thumb twiddling.) No, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that if obese kids are encouraged to keep a record of their eating habits via SMS, they are more likely to adhere to the health regimen—less TV, more exerices, less Coke—than those who just wrote down the same information. (Attrition rate was 28% against 61% for the paper diary kids and 50% for the control group.)

Part of this may be down to the fact that the kids get instant feedback via SMS on their results. So actually this is more about the interactivity of health regimes rather than the physical benefits of cellphones or texting. (Actually this whole SMS for health thing is quite a meme. Check out this conference here.)

The miracles of life in 2000—as seen from 1950

Popular Mechanics of February 1950 predicted a number of things, some of which have come true, some of which haven’t, and some of which should, if we got our act together.

What they got right

  • Highways broad without any curves
  • Doubledecked highways
  • soup and milk come in frozen bricks (but thought that cooking would be a thing of the past)
  • TV connected to the phone; but would buy stuff over the TV with store clerks holding the goods up obligingly for customers to inspect…
  • robots in factories, but controlled by punch cards
  • air travel would be frequent, but expensive because of jet fuel; rocket plane fare from Chicago to Paris would cost $5000

What they got wrong

  • Heart of the town is the airport
  • Clean as a whistle and quiet
  • Crime to burn raw coal
  • Illumnitated by electric suns on 200 ft high towers
  • A house would cost only $5000 to build
  • Houses don’t last more than 25 years
  • Wash using chemicals that shave as well.
  • Dishes dissolves in superheated water, so no washing machines
  • Plastics derived from cottonseed hulls, Jerusalem artichocks and and fruit pips
  • Clean the house by turning a hose on it; everything is synthetic fabric of waterproof plastic; drain in the middle of the floor
  • worried by mass starvation, scientists came up with food from sawdust, table linen and rayon underwear converted into sweets
  • ‘calculators’ would predict the weather
  • storms diverted
  • no one would have gone to the moon—yet…

What I wish they’d gotten right

  • Used underwear recyled into candy

Scam lady

Janella Spears, nursing administrator in a place called Sweet Home, Oregon, who practices CPR and is a reverend, has given $400,000 to scammers. She got letters from President Bush, the president of Nigeria and FBI director Robert Mueller. Wiped out husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took out a lien on the family car. Everyone told her to stop but she didn’t.

This is the problem with scams; it’s very hard to accept you’ve been scammed, and so perversely it’s easier to continuing giving money in the belief that it will all come good.

Pocket Keys

A team at UCal San Diego have come up with software, called Sneakey, that can take a picture of a key and convert it to a bitting code, which is enough for a locksmith to make a new key:

  1. The user provides point locations on the target key with a reference key as a guide.
  2. The system warps the target image into the pose of the reference key and overlays markings of where the bite codes are to be found.
  3. The user specifies where the cut falls along each line and the bit depths are decoded by the system into a bitting code.

In one experiment, the Sneakey team installed a camera on their four story department building (77 feet above the ground) at an acute angle to a key sitting on a café table 195 feet away. The image captured (below) was correctly decoded.

They’ve not released the software but say it would be pretty easy to put together.

The Puppy Love Scam

The scam emails offer a Yorkshire Terrier dog for adoption

A few weeks back I wrote about love scams (“You Give Love a Bad Name,” WSJ.com) — how scammers are trawling online dating sites looking for suckers. What interested me about the scam is that in some cases the scammers play a very patient game — luring the mark in over a period of months before any sting is attempted. 

Sophos, the antivirus people, say they have found a new twist on the same scam, where scammers are apparently luring folk by offering a puppy up for adoption:

The emails, which come from a husband and wife who claim to be on a Christian Mission in Africa say that their Yorkshire Terrier dog is not coping well in the hot weather.

Says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos:

“The criminals are offering the pet puppy in an attempt to gather information from kind-hearted people who jump in to help. If you respond the scammers will try and steal confidential information about you, or sting you for cash. If you fall for a trick like this you’ll be the one ending up in the doghouse.”

Actually this is not quite new and not completely accurate. The LA Times wrote back in May about how the scam works:

People who responded to the ads eventually were asked to send hundreds of dollars to cover expenses such as shipping, customs, taxes and inoculations on an ever-escalating scale.

Some reported paying fees totaling more $1,500.

A piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week said the scam had been going across America for a year and points out that a Google search for “Nigerian Puppy Scam” turns up more than 200,000 “hits.” (I must confess I found only 16,000.) Bulldogs and Yorkshire Terriers are favorites. The paper was apparently alerted to the scam when ads were found to be running in its own paper. A month earlier the Toronto Star reported that a local woman had parted with $500 for a 11-week old terrier, after responding to an ad on a free local classified site and complying with requests for three payments to ship the dog from Nigeria. (A reporter called up the scammer, who uttered the immortal scammer’s words:

“Are you trying to call me a scam? I’m a family man,” he said. “I am a man of God. I am a missionary.”

For more detail on scams and how to spot them, check out this page on the IPATA website.

Dogs work because we love them, and are suckers for the sob story. What’s interesting here — and why these scams are in some ways more dangerous — is that the scam does not play upon people’s greed at all, but instead upon their charity and sense of decency.

Two conclusions from this:

  • These scams are aimed at throwing a wider, and slightly different, net to the old scams. The victims are going to be people who are moral, not greedy.
  • Chances are the scammers are aiming at making less money from these scams, but perhaps make up for it in volume. Perhaps the days are over when scammer aimed to make five-figure sums.

Puppy offered for adoption by Nigerian email scammers

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Citizen Monitors

I like the idea of this: Using ordinary folk to monitor elections, via SMS from their cellphone. And it seems to have worked.

Nigeria used a system called FrontlineSMS, developed by UK-based kiwanja.net to keep track of all of the texts. Some 54 trained associates recruited volunteers to invite as many people as possible via text message to participate in monitoring the elections.

Why might this work? Well, usually election monitors are highly visible, because they’re foreign, or they’re wearing clothes that mark them clearly as monitors, all of which may reduce fraud in front of them, but doesn’t help to actually identify fraud. As the report (no link available yet) from the Network of Mobile Election Monitors concludes:

Our monitoring is peculiar because people knew that if they try to rig the election there could be someone behind them that may send a text message reporting the incident.

In total over 10,000 messages were received covering reports of harassment, orderliness, stuffing of ballot boxes and poor voter turnout. The team concluded that there was extensive fraud and rigging in the election.

What I like about the system is that it’s not a typical election monitoring exercise, where monitors go in and view the process according to foreign templates and established norms. The free-form nature of the text messages received, and the ability of the monitoring team to ask follow up questions of participants revealed something more important than merely gauging whether the election was free and fair. It (apparently) revealed the underlying mood of the populace for peace and compromise. Asked for their reaction to the result

While about a fifth of our respondents wanted the results cancelled, the majority (about 80%) reacted that Nigeria could not afford cancellation and re-run.

 

The General, The Famous Psychiatrist and “Different Nigerians”

You don’t have to be dumb to fall for Nigerian email scams. According to a suit filed by a renowned psychiatrist’s son, Dr. Louis A. Gottschalk lost perhaps $3 million over 10 years to scammers from Nigeria. As the LA Times puts it:

The court documents, filed last month in Orange County Superior Court, allege Gottschalk even traveled to Africa to meet a shadowy figure known as “The General.” Gottschalk — who at 89 still works at the UCI campus medical plaza that bears his name — said in court papers that the losses were caused by “some bad investments.”

The tale is an awfully familiar one, made worse by the sums involved and the apparent fact that we are talking about a renowned psychiatrist. As the son’s attorney put it: “While it seems unlikely, even ludicrous, that a highly educated doctor like [Gottschalk] would fall prey to such an obvious con, that is exactly what happened,” according to court papers.

According to the son’s account, the scam dates back to 1995:

A year later, Louis Gottschalk traveled to Africa to meet “The General” and other Nigerians “to show them that he was sincere so he would get the money.” Another court document said he also traveled to Amsterdam to meet the Nigerians. Soon afterward, his son said Gottschalk admitted to him that he had lost $300,000 and that FBI agents concluded that he had been a victim of an Internet scam.

But, as in many of these cases, that didn’t stop him. Throwing good money after bad, caution to the wind but not the towel, Louis Gottschalk, according to his son

kept clandestinely wiring money to the Nigerians at least until last fall. Guy Gottschalk said that when he confronted his father in October, Louis Gottschalk said, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right on Thursday because I will be getting $20 million.”The son said his father also told him he’d get the money this time because these were “different Nigerians.”

They always are.

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First Nigerian email scammer jailed

Hong Kong has done its bit to crack down on Nigerian e-mail fraud, jailing its first Nigerian scammer :

Hong Kong has successfully prosecuted its first Nigerian email scammer. A 30-year-old Nigerian man was jailed four years today for a US$26 million scam, in which he was convicted at the District Court of attempting to obtain property by deception and possession of a false travel document.

Is The Era Of The Nigerian Scam Over?

The Register says that Nigerian scammers are getting run out of town by vigilant ISPs and greater user awareness. The article points to how scammers are having to use more obscure free email addresses — Elvis.com, Irangate.com, Handbag.com, for example — to avoid getting shut down before they can reach their target audience.
 
They’re also trying new angles, the article says: One recent one actually highlights the Nigerian Scam but says such scams are only giving the legitimate fund-looting business a bad name. “When they attempt and fail, the world hears in the news as Nigeria fraud/scam, but when they succeed, nobody or newspapers writes it,” the email says. I kinda like that approach: ‘There are legitimate scams out there, and you’re an idiot if you can’t tell the difference. Oh, and by the way, this one is legit.’
 
However, there’s an important aspect to this. I have no concrete evidence, but I believe that not a few of these ‘Nigerian’ scammers (not all are Nigeria-based, and some do not involve Africa at all) are linked to the more sophisticated scams we’re seeing nowadays, including phishing. In recent weeks I’ve received scams related to the latter sent to unique email addresses I’ve received only Nigerian scam emails from before (and never pure spam). I suspect this might indicate that, at the very least, these groups are sharing their email lists. But it could be more.
 
Nigerian scammers aren’t dying off. They’re mutating.