Once upon a time, there was a Prince. He lived in a far away land called Nigeria. And he was rich. But he had a problem. He was wrongly imprisoned, and had no access to his funds, so he grabbed a broadband connection and sent out a cry for help. For just 3 million dollars, you could free this Prince and once free, he would reward you with 300 million.
The old saying, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” has never been more apt. And yet, the Nigerian Prince scam is one of the earliest online cons in the book.
Indeed, if you are old enough to remember the early days of home computing email inboxes, then you most likely received one of these emails. And while it’s easy to sit back and marvel that anybody could be gullible enough to fall for such clear criminality, it’s worth remembering that such scams play the numbers game. For every billion people that send it straight to the delete bin, there will always be a handful of naïve enough people who fall for it. And some of them have a lot of money.
The law of averages is on the online scammers side and as the technology has progressed, so the scams have evolved, embracing the surge in social media, dating sites, internet banking back doors, and the multitude of fragile people who might very well have a laptop, but don’t really understand its potential to harm.
In the UK alone, it is reported that more than 2 million users a year are victims of cybercrime, broken down, by the BBC, into these categories of attack: Bank and credit account fraud, Advance fee fraud, Non-investment fraud and investment or fake charity scams.
According to Consumer Fraud Reporting.org, globally, in 2019, most scammers were operating from China, Russia and the US. The same source states that at least 80% of these scams originate, initially, from mass email contact.
Every corner of the net has its weak spots, and there are always going to be people smart enough to find them. Online dating sites are rife with vulnerable psyches, and the scammers exploit this, usually leading the victim away from one website, and to a third party, where they can spin their web of lies. One particular scam involves the victim registering for an online dating safety certificate (kind of an insurance that if you meet a prospective partner, you won’t stab them to death). All it takes is the registering of a credit card.
It’s just that simple.
Chief Constable Jeff Farrar, of The NPCs’ Council, working with the British Home Office, stated:
“The ability to commit crime online demonstrates the need for policing to adapt and transform to tackle these cyber challenge.”
And yet, despite the government’s awareness and eagerness to work the problems inherent with these categories, it is getting harder and harder to police, with the internet, much like our universe, constantly expanding.
Thankfully, online users also have a growing awareness of such scams and the internet has one very effective trick up its sleeve, in the form of speed. While we may use our social media platforms to argue or share pictures of cat memes, we also look out for each other, and flag any scams that may drop into our lap, through mass public posts. Kind of a community noticeboard, one of the few instances, online at least, where community actually works.
Then there are the tracks these scammers leave in the world wide snow, which can be exposed, explicitly.
One investigation in particular, by Norwegian site VG, has utilised the very tools by which the online scam artist operates, turning the digital tables, as it were, to expose the truth. The Tinder Swindler case deals with a young man who created a completely new persona for himself, through text messages, photographs, social media and, most importantly, other people’s money, crafting the image of himself as a wealthy playboy, on dating sites. Hooking and reeling in numerous women, he financed his lifestyle (private jet, the best hotels and restaurants) through each of his victims: essentially building a house of cards, with each floor being financed by the one below. The culprit has since been caught, his exploits laid out in an investigation you can analyse and follow, almost chapter by chapter, through his text messages, online profiles and numerous deceptive online fabrications, here.
This shows the peril that lies on both sides of the scam scenario. As easy as it is for the naïve or vulnerable to be targeted (the elderly are particularly susceptible to these cons), the digital thumbprints are just as tricky to negotiate. Where a fake passport or a purchase order leaves a paper trail, so we find with an online presence, a scattered rubble of evidence that can be used in defence of the victim. A picture speaks a thousand words, but it can also expose the secrets at its heart.
Not that it has one.
Cloned banking sites will steal your details without you even realising it, from passwords to pin numbers. It happens every day, a business that continues to boom, regardless of the advances in techniques being used to combat them.
Less severe, but no less irritating, are click bait sites, which rely on advertising revenues, aided by clicks from site visitors. They lure you in with trash, stories about celebrities, or some fact that the world absolutely needs to know about. Then, once you’re there, you have to negotiate a never ending maze of pop-ups, every page demanding a click, which in turn makes that site more money, while you get increasingly more agitated.
Time, as they say, is never cheap.
The online frame, then, is vulnerable and the foundations are under attack. The only way to combat the problem is to keep our eyes wide open and resist that urge to click left.
Cover image: Christiaan Colen / Flickr
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