Heart and Soul: Anatomy of scams


Illustration: 123rf.com

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It had been drizzling since morning, and was getting heavier. Someone rang my door bell. It was a young salesgirl hesitantly asking for shelter from the rain. Well, I demurred but, given the circumstances, I could not really say no.

I let her in to the car porch to wait out the rain.

I was about to leave her and get back into the house when she enquired if I had any Japanese branded products in the house. Sure, several, the hi-fi system, rice cooker, ceiling fans, etc.

“You are in luck” she said. “Any well-known Japanese product would entitle you to a scratch-and-win competition.”

I scratched and she let out out a whoop. I had won a car! Wow! This was getting more exciting by the minute.

The rain got heavier.

She asked to use my house phone to call her boss at the head office to notify him of a new winner. She made the call, then informed me that to claim the car I had to pay a processing fee.

Just send the car, I persisted, refusing to humour her request to pay a fee.

”You are refusing a new car?” she asked.

Yes, I said, recognising the entire episode as a scam!

The rain was easing but had not stopped. I politely asked her to leave, not quite sure if she was done with her scheming.

In those days, handphones were unknown. We only had house phones. Our housing estate was not yet a gated community. Anyone could wander around.

Now handphones are ubiquitous. Almost everyone is on a social media platform or on multiple platforms. These have given rise to new scams. There was the old Nigerian scam which has not disappeared, complemented by the Macao scam. There are other schemes, too, promising huge returns typically on forex or gold transactions. If these offerings sound too good to be true, they are!

Many years ago, I received a letter purportedly from the wife of the CEO of an African oil company who has been arrested. He apparently had stashed away a lot of money in an overseas account. She needed funds for her children who were studying in Britain.

Based on her “investigation”, she believed I was a trustworthy person. Really intriguing! She needed a third-party account as a conduit to transfer the funds in the husband’s overseas account. She offered a large commission, provided I give certain details of my bank account to her. The money would be channelled from the husband’s illicit account through my account to her. I did not buy her story. More than likely my bank account would be cleaned out. A typical Nigerian scam!

The Macao scams work on one’s psyche to coerce surrender.

Ini adalah panggilan dari Jabatan Talikom. Perkhidmatan talipon anda akan dipotong hari ini (This is a call from Telekom. Your telephone line will be cut off today).” Quite intriguing, this threat to cut my landline. I had actually terminated the service more than a year earlier. If I had not cut the “bot call”, I may have been told that my phone line was heavily used for money laundering and unsavoury activities. Then I would be connected to a “police sergeant” who would reiterate the charges, informing that an arrest warrant had been issued!

I received several calls allegedly from Lembaga Hasil Dalam Negeri (Inland Revenue Board) regarding taxes not paid, that I had been summoned to appear in court. That these scammers managed to hoodwink many is incredible and deplorable, a smooth play on the victims’ psyche by instilling fear.

Even professionals have fallen victim in spite of regular reminders by the police, banks and government departments. When I read of retired teachers losing thousands to Macao scams, my heart bleeds for them.

Perpetrators are rarely caught. Is it really that difficult to expose these criminals, stop them and give them their just rewards?

The latest scams are job offers ostensibly from someone claiming to be the personnel manager of well-known tech or online shopping companies. Big rewards are offered for doing almost nothing, it seems. Some successful applicants ended up in Myanmar, Cambodia, even Peru, coerced to execute online scams, under threat usually! To leave, ransom has to be paid by relatives.

The old love scams have mushroomed on Facebook and other social media. The Nigerians were masters at this. Now the perpetrators could be anywhere. Targeting older spinsters and bachelors, after a whirlwind online romance, a request for money would follow ostensibly as working capital for a new business or to pay unexpected medical bills.

Alternatively, the suitor would claim to have sent expensive presents, even large sums of money, which had been intercepted by the Customs on account of taxes not paid. To claim these expensive presents, the lovelorn must pay the outstanding levy to a particular bank account. Many took the bait. Why, is beyond my comprehension.

“A friend travelling in Italy has met with an accident and is hospitalised.” The email further informed of a big medical bill for which only 50% of payment is available. Would I, as a dear friend, advance the remaining 50% via Western Union... Have to sign off as phone battery is running out!

I know the so-called friend is not in Italy! Why, we just played a round of golf in the morning. Sheesh! Apparently, someone had access to my email contacts. My friend’s or my email may have been hacked! Plenty of such hard luck stories and appeals!

At first glance, the SMS message appeared to be from my banker notifying that I had spent just under RM2,000 for an online purchase. I had made no such purchase! Upon further scrutiny, the credit card number quoted was not mine. I was already hot under the collar and almost called the number given.

I cooled off when I realised it was a phishing scam. I would be offered a refund for which certain details of my bank account had to be disclosed!

The handphone rang once. Then a “missed call” message from a local or overseas number. The curious may call back and be lumbered with a hefty bill for calling a premium charge number!

What scams are next? Anything is possible – even the Eiffel Tower was once offered as scrap to a gullible buyer!

These scammers are not going away. More than likely, our phone numbers and email addresses are being sold many times over, all over. It is incumbent upon us to discern and filter out potential scams and not give in to innate fears. Scammers seem to understand and exploit this. They even leave messages on voice mail.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) would give scammers an additional scary dimension to intimidate potential victims with virtual reality. Beware of scammers!

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