Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Internet: Making Smart People Do Stupid Things Since 1590

Let me tell you a very sad story. (You'll probably need some tissues. I can wait while you get some.... Ready? OK.)

Nichol, a Frenchman stuck in a Spanish prison, has very little time left. He is dying, and the bad food and damp, dank air in the prison are contributing to his ill health and hastening his impending end. He knows he will soon die, but he has something very important to do: He must save his daughter. With Nichol gone, sweet, innocent Mary, only 17 years old, will be destitute. But Nichol has a trick up his ragged sleeve: He has bribed a jailer to deliver a letter to Mr. Fitch, a man of wealth and power who lives in America. The letter notes that Nichol has access to vast sums of money, or would if he were free. The money is in fact hidden not far from where Fitch resides, because Nichol himself, on a previous visit to America, buried the funds in a forest near Fitch's home town. He can direct Mr. Fitch to the money if Fitch will pay Mary's passage to America and then agree to raise the young woman as his ward. Nichol may well die, but at least his fortune and his daughter will be safe.


A real news report about an actual airline disaster, which
a scammer will now attempt to use as part of an advance
fee fraud.
Of course, the saddest thing about this story is the fact that so many people believed it and sent money to Spain so that Mary could live happy and free(And so that they could pocket Nichol's fortune after his demise.) In other words, it was a con. A fraud. A swindle. 

If the con sounds familiar, it's because there truly is nothing new under the sun. This is called an "advance fee" fraud, because the victim is asked to pay a relatively small fee in advance of receiving a much larger payment. Of course, that larger payment never shows up.

This is perhaps the most direct ancestor of such modern advance fee frauds as the so-called Nigerian scam: swindles in which a mark is persuaded to pay various "fees," "insurance," or "taxes" ahead of receiving his share of some enormous fortune. Some versions of the scam may involve checks being delivered to the victim, out of which he is supposed to pay certain fees, taxes, or shipping costs by forwarding a percentage of the received monies to a "government official" or "shipping" company. Of course, the check is bogus; the "shipping company" is in fact the scammer himself, and when all is said and done, the victim is on the hook to the bank, having deposited a bad check into his account and sent his own money to the scammer.


I received this excellent example of an advance fee
fraud attempt on the very day I was writing this post.
Note that the fraudster directs the recipient to a report
of an actual airliner crash (see image above) as a way
of adding a touch of verisimilitude.
There is almost no end to the types of advance fee frauds one might encounter: work-at-home schemes, model and escort agency dodges, employment frauds, cash handling (read: money laundering) cons, lottery scams, and Craigslist ruses in which someone selling legitimate goods is sent a fake check for more than the selling price, with the extra to be wired to a third party. (Once again, the check is bad, and the seller is on the hook for the check and any "purchased" goods he may have already shipped to the scammer.)

There's also almost no end to how much the scammer will attempt to bleed the mark. Once you pay the initial fees, you've established yourself as the type of person a scammer loves most: gullible and affluent. The next step, of course, is to inform you that more fees are due or that some other issue has arisen that requires more funds. This will continue until the mark is bled dry or finally realizes that he's being scammed.

But let's not blame the Internet, because all of this really has little to do with technology, and much to do with the nature of people. We're greedy, and we like to think that we can get something for nothing. We can't. But we never stop trying: This sort of fraud (known during the 19th century as "the Spanish prisoner con") has been going on since the 16th century, and there's no reason to believe that it will ever stop. 

Still, the Internet does help the scammer: Digital communications make it much easier to scam more people more quickly. (Let's hear it for efficiency!) After all, it costs the scammer almost nothing to send out hundreds of scam emails. If the return is very, very small, it doesn't matter, because it didn't really cost him anything. 

Not only that, but the scam quickly becomes self-selecting: The scammers want the smart people, the ones who are a bit wary, to pass on the scam as quickly as possible, because those are the people who would wise up before the scam was successful. The scammers would end up wasting time trying to convince someone who is already wise to the con, so they'd just as soon those people immediately delete the initial scam emails. What's left? Gullible people. Greedy people. Folks who are desperate to make a quick fortune. Those are the ones they can string along for weeks or months, the whole time siphoning off funds that the victims probably can't afford to lose.

And, believe it or not, advance fee scammers do make money. A lot of money: According to Ultrascan, a group of Dutch fraud investigators, $12.3 billion was lost to the con globally in 2013. This is, after all, why the scam is still with us: Dating back to the late 1500s, it's almost literally "the oldest trick in the book," but it still works.

2 comments:

  1. Great post, Rod. Even more detail on what NOT to click on that may pop up in your email would be useful. An opened email with a call-to-action demanding that you immediately so anything likely is a scam. Let it raise red flags. Close it fast!

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    Replies
    1. Great point, Michael! If the email attempts to instill a sense of urgency [Click here! Do it now! Don't wait!!], then yeah, I'd view it with extreme suspicion. Thank you for the comment!

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