As scams crop up capitalizing on our Covid-19 fears, we should be ready to practice 'social distancing' to protect ourselves from being conned.
Remember those “Nigerian Prince” email scams? Also known as ‘advance fee’ scams, they usually sought money up-front in return for a more lucrative amount later on. Many fell for this get-rich plot despite its often-ridiculous premise and promise – and still do.
In a 2012 research paper titled “Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?” Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research argued that the ludicrousness of scammer emails – usually riddled with typos and grammatical errors – was part of the effectiveness of the con-game.
Essentially, the typos, bad grammar and outlandish promises (inheritance of USD300 million? Sign me up!) apparently acted as a natural filter to separate those who would and would not fall for the scam. This had the effect of reducing potentially unsuccessful attempts and optimising resources - as every response received would mean more effort by scammers to complete the ‘deal’.
The aim of the game? Exploit the most gullible and vulnerable, and occasionally greedy. It taps upon and weaves a beautiful complexity of human emotions, including the need to help and contribute.
According to ADT Security Services, Americans lost USD703,000 to these ‘advance fee’ scams in 2019. Including other scams involving romance, credit cards and cryptocurrency, the overall amount lost was USD26 million - which is about RM110 million.
The situation in Malaysia is quite dire too. According to reports, Malaysians lost a whopping RM769 million between 2017 and 2019 and non-existent alluring loan schemes topped the list
The ongoing Covid-19 crisis and movement control order (MCO) has been challenging for all – whether in Malaysia or abroad. Nevertheless, we often see an outpouring of love and support for the most vulnerable, as well as for the front-liners battling the virus. Wonderful sights, really.
The Government has also announced a RM260 billion stimulus package in place to help the needy, protect jobs, and support businesses owing to Covid-19’s impact on the economy. Finance Minister, Dato’ Sri Tengku Zafrul, is seen sharing updates about the stimulus packages’ implementation progress weekly on his Facebook.
Despite the rousing spirit of humanity and financial aid efforts taken, another ‘spirit’, or rather ‘hantu’, has emerged; the Covid-19 Scammer.
Just in the last month, various news reports make for a harrowing read: ‘Woman scammed into giving RM600,000 and her passport to a conman who claimed to be selling face masks’; ’37-year old Alor Gajah clerk lost RM54,000 in online scam after placing orders for 3,364 boxes of face masks’, and ‘Sibu beautician, 21, lost RM10,000 to WeChat friend after ordering 200 boxes of face masks that were never delivered to her’.
The common link? Face masks, likely to provide some protection from Covid-19.
It does not stop there. In a joint statement in early April, bank associations called for vigilance among members of the public. The Covid-19 scammers were impersonating bank officers via emails, phone calls, SMS and even Whatsapp trying to get personal information from potential targets.
The scammers have been trying to dupe people seeking assistance and relief provided under the stimulus packages. A visit to Bank Negara Malaysia’s (BNM) Facebook page leads users to a plethora of posts warning the public about these scammers.
So why do Malaysians fall for these scams?
Unlike the Nigerian Prince scam highlighted above, the current ones are not as outlandish or ridiculous. Many appear as legitimate attempts to sell in-demand Covid-19 protection products. Some messages, including ones I’ve received, have required me to look twice before realising it was a scam.
Malaysians fall for Covid-19 scams because they want to believe they’ll get something beneficial out of it. The scammers are, after all, gunning for the desperation and vulnerability of their victims. This applies to other con-games too such as the "court hearing" or "police summons". The scammers are happy to make calls all day and find one victim who’ll stick. The returns are clearly quite good.
Be that as it may, I do hope Malaysians practice more vigilance and do take time to refer to the correct resouces. For example, for access to the government’s stimulus package assistances, businesses can go to imSME.com.my or call BNM’s TELELINK at 1-300-5465.
Individuals on the other hand can go to pre2020.treasury.gov.my or call the Finance Ministry’s hotline at 03-8882 9089/ 9087/ 9191 or even join its Telegram channel at https://t.me/MOFPRE2020 for up-to-date information.
Scammers go after both the young and old. So, let us do our part and when we speak to our loved ones, spare a moment to remind and empower them. New and novel scams may emerge over time, but shared vigilance is key as we keep ourselves and each other socially distanced from being scammed.
Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.