With trembling hands I clicked on the message to read that he had gone to Nigeria for a conference and had lost his passport, tickets and money. He was in deep distress and would like me to send him some money urgently through a Nigerian friend. He had signed with his old designation in Bangkok rather than his new one at his present post.
The words, 'Nigeria' and 'Bangkok' put me at ease, but I called him to ensure that he was sleeping at home. He was not sleeping as my son had already woken him up to alert him to the scam and he was busy answering calls and e-mails, assuring friends and relatives that he was in distress only because of the scam.
Nigerian scams are known to e-mail users around the globe, but this one was new because the message had come from my brother's e-mail account. Apparently, he had received a message, seemingly from the Hotmail team, asking him to confirm that he wanted to continue to operate his account, which was otherwise lapsing.
He naturally replied to the message in the affirmative and that was enough for the scammers to get hold of his password and hack into his account. Most recipients saw through the game and called, but a good soul, who saw the message rather late, offered to send my brother some money unless the emergency had passed. It is precisely this one innocent soul that the scammers target and succeed in cheating. They could not care less about a thousand others who deleted the message.
My brother cannot operate his Hotmail account anymore, but someone replies to messages relating to the 'emergency' in the hope that fools and their money are soon parted. The scammers are still waiting with a game plan to trap victims.
The Nigerian scams over the Internet are so common that there is a 'Wipe Out Nigerian Scams Team (WONST)', which itself is suspected to be a scam as it has been soliciting funds for its activities. No e-mail account escapes junk mail, which promotes diverse products, primarily love potions and anatomy enlargers. But Nigerian scams find their way into the inbox with compelling titles such as 'private and confidential' 'You have won a lottery' etc. Many of them, which I have gathered in a 'hoax folder', are cleverly written, but the language and format have become so familiar that it is no more necessary to read the messages to understand their intent and purpose.
Electronic scams are merely the manifestations of depraved minds using a new media. The technology may be new, but the technique is old. The history of scams goes back to the Spanish Prisoner Scam (1588). The victim was told that a wealthy man was in a Spanish prison and that he needed a huge sum of money to pay ransom. He could not reveal his identity, but if he was helped, the helper would be rewarded not only with money, but also the hand of his beautiful daughter. The middleman, of course, ran away with the money.
In a delightful short story, Roald Dahl narrates a scam in which a book shop owner sends bills to widows of celebrities, claiming that they had purchased pornography from him. Payments were made promptly to avoid embarrassment about the reading habits of the deceased. He gets caught only when the widow of a blind man challenges the claims. The advent of the Internet has just multiplied the number and variety of these scams.
Nigeria is synonymous with scams of various kinds. Since section 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code deals with these crimes, these have come to be known there as the 419 crimes, just as cheats are known in India as 420. The most common scam is to send thousands of messages offering a large sum of money belonging to some known African dictator from a bank.
Once someone shows interest, different technical problems arise and the potential recipients are asked to make small payments to deal with formalities. Authentic looking documents are sent to the clients to create confidence and by the time the scam comes to light, the client would have dished out quite a bit of money.
Only one in a thousand may respond and only one in two thousand may pay anything at all. But the number of messages that go out are so enormous that the scammers are quite happy with the few responses that they get.
Internet cafes in Nigeria are closed between 1030 pm and 7 am and the scammers go to work in these cafes during these hours with the connivance of the owners. These are mostly people in their twenties, who are computer savvy. It is their inventive minds that generate diverse scams. Apart from the bank transfer scams, there are credit card scams, romance scams, lottery scams, inheritance scams, classified advertisements scams, escort scams, rental scams and even puppy scams.
Among the victims, who have reported their losses are people, who chased promises of donations and gifts, others, who have reached Nigeria in pursuit of large inheritances reported to be lying in banks and those who were lured by damsels in distress.
In the United States itself, losses on account of African scams are estimated to be in the order of $100 million per year. A CBS show featured a number of victims, who approached the US mission after they were swindled. Their tales were amazing as all of them were intelligent and educated people, who were attracted by the lure of illegal gains.
One priest, who was running an orphanage, was offered a large contribution and a lady was told that her deceased husband had left a huge fortune in a Nigerian bank. Both had paid money and even traveled to Nigeria. Financial losses apart, scams have resulted in physical harm and even death in certain cases. Kidnapping and arrests are also common. But still the industry keeps growing as new technologies becomes available.
Every paradise has its plague and scams have been invented to curse the Internet, which is a great blessing to humanity. Human ingenuity has created the Internet, human greed has created the scams to go with it.
T P Sreenivasan, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, was India's ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.