(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. My thanks to Joe Wein for the information that made this column possible.)
A lot of people think that online scams happen to other people, but they don’t. They could happen to you. Or a relative, new to the Internet.
At midday last Oct. 9, the life of Mr. Bhanjee (not his real name) changed forever. Checking his Yahoo! account in his home town in India’s Karnataka state, he noticed he had received an e-mail from the UK National Lottery.
The message said he had been randomly selected to enter the online Sweepstakes International program held in Britain three days earlier.
He had won, the e-mail said, stg. 480,204, which would be released to him by the company’s London office. He was advised to keep the information confidential “till your claim is processed and your money remitted to you in whatever manner you deem fit to claim your prize.”
He e-mailed back his delight. A few weeks later he got an e-mail from the Reverend Nick Robert who confirmed the winnings and said his original certificate of winning had been forwarded to a courier company based in Cardiff, Wales, and told Mr. Bhanjee to contact a Fred Smith. He duly did so.
He was told to send stg. 583.45 toward insurance and courier charges. Belonging to a poor family, Mr. Bhanjee expressed his inability to send this amount. Nothing happened. Then, on New Year’s Eve Mr. Smith informed him that the directors of the lottery had decided to transfer his prize directly to him “because of limited time.”
He again offered his congratulations and told him to send his bank account details to a Mrs. Jean Lynn of Lloyds TSB in Bately, Yorkshire. The e-mail this time was not from a free e-mail service but an actual website: www.llbukinter.co.uk.
Accordingly, Mr. Bhanjee contacted Mrs. Lynn Jean and gave her all the particulars. He was surprised to receive, in reply, an e-mail informing him his account had become dormant and needed to be reactivated, at a cost of stg. 850. He tried to reason, but to no avail.
Mr. Bhanjee borrowed from friends and relatives and deposited the amount into a personal account belonging to “A1 Medical and General Store” at a bank in Boisar, a small town in India’s Maharashtra state, on Feb. 26, 2007.
He was told his money would arrive within 72 hours. Instead he received another e-mail from Mrs. Jean requesting another stg. 650 toward Revenue Commission and stg. 400 Non-Residential Tax. Mr. Bhanjee borrowed more and deposited the amount in two other accounts. He waited.
Another e-mail arrived from Mrs. Jean, asking him to deposit another stg 1,500 towards “COT code” charges. Things were getting desperate. If he withdrew now he would lose all the money he’d put in. But finding more was hard.
“I expressed my extreme difficulty in arranging for any further amount to deposit,” he recalled, but Mrs. Lynn Jean turned deaf ears towards my cries.” He sold his house, and, in April, deposited the money in another Boisar bank account. Still no money arrived.
Another request came through: Because it had taken so long, his account had been deactivated again. He pleaded with Mrs. Lynn Jean about his critical financial condition. With great difficulty he scrambled together the money and, on May 9, deposited stg. 850 into the personal account of a “Khudrakpam Hemadevi” at a bank in Karnataka State.
Be suspicious of the unknown
By now his relatives were losing patience. “By this time it was already seven to eight months (and) all the creditors started pressuring me for returning their loan amounts and they started to lose faith and confidence in me,” he wrote.
They started to call him a cheat. He was in hell: “My mental torture and agony knew no bounds.” But it wasn’t over. It was then that received an e-mail from the manager of the International Clearance department at Lloyds Bank asking him to send stg. 2,500 toward fund clearance fees. But there was no money left.
Owing more than stg. 4,000 to friends and relatives, Mr. Bhanjee hunted around for help. He found Joe Wein, a German software programmer who runs a website help desk for those duped by so-called 419 scammers, to whom he wrote an e-mail begging for help, his writing an unconscious echo of the style his tormentors used:
“Sir, this is the episode by which I would become bankrupt, frustrated in life and I am left with no alternate other than committing suicide under the pressure of the creditors, mental torture on account of Mrs. Lynn Jean’s fraudulent acts which made me a beggar.
“I do not know whether I am going to get the lottery amount or not. I am the poorest man and living with a loaf of bread with my aged mother, having lost everything on account of this lottery and Mrs. Lynn Jean.”
(At the time of writing, what happened to Mr Bhanjee in the end is not yet known.)
It’s easy to mock those who have fallen victim to such scams. But if you’re new to the Internet, new to e-mail, if you’ve not received one of these scams before, you may easily believe your luck is about to change.
Scammers will try new tricks to drop your guard: One e-mail scam I saw recently informed the recipient the Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez’s board of trustees had chosen them as the final recipient for “a cash grant/donation for your own personal, educational and business development”.
The scam is always the same, but it often sounds more plausible than you’d expect.
What can you do to avoid being scammed, or having someone in your family fall victim? Well, the obvious rules apply: Don’t believe anything you receive from someone that you don’t know.
It’s an obvious lesson, but one we continually fail to follow: A friend wondered recently whether a spate of recent e-mails saying they had received an e-greetings card from a colleague/friend/relative were real. No, they’re not, and clicking on a link will install bad stuff on your computer you’d rather not have.
If you’re really not sure about something, delete it. If it’s real, the person will find another way of contacting you or will resend it.
If it’s from a webmail address (like Yahoo! or Hotmail, or something like that) chances are very high it’s a scam. If you want to doubly sure, visit Joe’s website Scam-o-matic and paste the contents of the e-mail into a box he provides. Software he has developed will tell you whether or not the contents are a scam.
Bottom line: As more and more of us venture online for the first time, we represent a new generation of innocents that the scammers can target. They won’t stop, and they will show no mercy, so make sure all your friends and family are aware.