Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Source: The Egypt Today
Date: November 12, 2003
The Universal Lottery Co. wants to give you $2,000. Mohamed Abacha wants you to share his father's $45 million fortune. And Svetlana (or Boris) from Russia simply loves your smile. The catch is, none of them want you. They want your money - and your identity. Egypt Today investigates three of the most common Internet scams Egyptians are falling for.
Heba Shafie, A twenty-something office assistant, seems surprisingly annoyed for a woman who has just been offered $5 million. "Every time I check my e-mail I find somebody offering me money," she complains. "I have no idea who these people are or why they keep sending me this stuff." Shafie is not alone. Every day, millions of Internet users receive incredible offers that mask criminal attempts to steal their money. Some seem reasonable, others are outlandish. "In one letter, a guy claimed I had won a poetry contest," recalls Shafie. "I don't even write poetry - and I certainly didn't enter any contest."
Most people send unsolicited e-mails straight to the trash folder, but sometimes an offer seems convincing enough that a person may be lured into responding.
"Their pressing need for a solution to a problem suggests to them that, even if they are in doubt, try it because maybe it will work," explains Dr. Osman Farrag, professor emeritus of psychology at the American University in Cairo.
The problem is, it never works: The only ones profiting from these get-rich-quick schemes are criminals playing on the hopes and gullibility of their victims. It's the inter net age equivalent of the confidence man and Three-Card Monte rolled into one, and the number of scam artists grows every year.
According to the International Web Police, a US-based non- profit organization set up in 1986 to monitor and help prosecute Internet crime worldwide, cyber crime (which includes everything from credit card fraud to kiddie porn sites) increased 61.4 percent last year. About a quarter of the 1.3 million complaints it investigated in 2002 involved some form of Internet fraud or e-mail scam.
But most fraud goes unreported, usually because the victim feels embarrassed or assumes little can be done to punish the perpe- trators. Some victims steadfastly refuse to believe they have been scammed^; many, even here in Egypt, fall for the same trick twice.
"There are people who never learn from their experience and still keep on hoping," says Farrag. "It is a symptom of denial."
The risks inherent in falling for one of these schemes run far deeper than losing money: Some victims are lured to foreign cities and there held hostage for cash or ransom. Some have been mur- dered, others sexually assaulted.
Egypt Today goes inside the anatomy of three scams: bogus lotter- ies, shady "match-making" services and the "unclaimed millions" deal, where police officials warn that if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
HOW CAN I TAKE YOUR MONEY?
It's hard to generalize about e-mail scams. Some are laughably simple attempts by an individual working from a single PC, while others are complex schemes involving an entire web of criminals, shadowy corporations and even corrupt government officials. The variations are endless.
Fraudsters harvest e-mail addresses from bulletin boards, web searches and bulk mailing lists. Most of the e-mails they send are disguised as run-of-the-mill spam, such as vacation prize promotions, credit card applications, home-equity loans and ads for miracle pills.
"I get too many of these," complains Naglaa Mohammed, a contract lawyer. "They keep filling my inbox so I never get important e-mails."
Apart from the nuisance, there is risk: Responding to any of these offers is a giant leap of faith. An honest individual or com- pany will use the information it obtains to complete a sale or fine- tune its marketing. A fraudster can use the same information for unscrupulous marketing, identity theft or other financial crime.
The trouble is, there is no way to know which is which.
Fortunately, Egyptians rarely respond to spam scams because they assume the offer is only valid in North America or Europe. "I do everything they tell me, but then they say [the offer] only applies in the US or they need a credit card number, which I don't have," says Mohammed.
Still, some Egyptians have fallen victim. Speaking on condition that neither they nor their organizations be named, officials at two local financial institutions confirmed they had each had cases of Egyptian nationals using their services who had fallen victims to third parties (almost always outside of Egypt) in transactions initiated over the Internet. Neither source would confirm the number of alleged cases.
At the core of the problem: supplying credit card information over the Internet is a high-risk gamble. Fraudsters use credit application forms, mock web sites or fake customer notices to steal credit card and PIN numbers. In one scam, a fraudster emulated a PayPal notice to convince the online credit system's unsuspecting customers to reveal their personal account data. The information they entered was rerouted to the fraudster's server.
Equally sinister are foreign money orders disguised as lottery prizes, love letters or lucrative business partnerships. Unlike spam, with its tell-tale bulk mail header, these e-mails have a more per- sonal touch and may even address the recipient by name. Their fan- tastic offers play on the recipient's most basic desires - hope, love or greed - and inevitably share a common outcome: disappointment. One of the most common scams is the fake lottery draw. Victims receive an official-looking letter informing them they have just won the lottery. The obvious question people ask is how they could win a lottery they never entered.
When Egypt Today posed the question to one fraudster claiming to be a lottery organizer, he responded with the good news: The attached form requested full bank details, including sig- natures, and offered a friendly reminder to complete the form so as to avoid "the risk of transferring [your] fund into the wrong destination (account) considering the amount involved."
Anyone who completes the form automatically gives the fraudster enough information to forge personal checks and money orders in their name - leaving themselves on the hook for thousands of dollars. But the scam doesn't end there. Before emptying the victim's checking account, the fraudster tries to grab a little extra cash by instructing the victim to transfer money to him to pay a bogus "handling fee".
These scams are easily identified because there's simply no such thing as an "auto-entry" Internet lottery. Dating scams, on the other hand, are harder to recognize, because many Internet dating services operate as legitimate businesses that have thousands of satisfied customers. For Mido, an unemployed waiter, these dating services offer a unique opportunity to meet foreign women. Every day, he goes to a Cairo Internet café to check his inbox for responses to the free personal ads he placed on a dozen dating websites. He insists he's serious about his quest to marry a foreign woman, and is angry when fraudsters take advantage.
Distinguishing real women from scammers is difficult, says Mido, but the latter usually pose as young, drop-dead gorgeous virgins. Their tireless love letters and sexy photos (often stolen from modeling and porn web sites) make enamored men want to believe it is all real. While most of the scammers claim to be women, a quick tour through scam-busters' websites suggests some of the fraudsters are men preying on lonely women (see How to Report a Crime).
"After a few letters, the girls tell you they love you," says Mido. "If you believe that, you can lose all your money." Swindlers angle for cash in several ways. The most popular ploy is to claim she wants to travel to meet her beloved, but that she needs money for the visa and air ticket. She may also offer a sob story about her sick mother needing money for an operation, or being unable to pay her tuition. Many, however, collaborate with unscrupulous dating agencies or translation services to milk money out of their victims bit by bit.
"After a few letters with one girl, I received a letter from a Russian company that asked for $200 for translation services," recalls Mido. "I had never heard of this company before."Mido tried to contact his Russian sweetie, but she did not respond.
Instead, the company reiterated its demand for payment, adding that if he did not pay he would no longer be able to correspond with his beloved Russian girl (see From Russia With Love). Mido tried to round up enough cash, but failed. "Maybe she was working with the company?" he wonders. "I never found out."
THE LADS FROM LAGOS
The most famous Internet scam is advanced fee fraud, commonly referred to as "419 fraud" after the relevant section in the Nigerian criminal code, where the scheme first began. While it represents less than 1% of all reported fraud cases, experts say 419 fraud accounts for the highest individual dollar losses.
The scam has many variants, but it inevitably begins with an unsolicited e-mail in which the sender purports to have, say, $20.5 million, but needs the recipient's help to spirit the funds out of his country. The sender will usually adopt the name of a genuine senior civil servant, banking official or close relative of a deposed politician, claiming to have access to unclaimed inheritance, over-invoiced accounts, charitable donations or forgotten slush funds.
While the fraudsters frequently impersonate West African individuals, a growing number have faked Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Saudi and Egyptian nationalities in the months since 9/11, a trend that grew in popularity after America's invasion of Iraq earlier this year. Saddam Hussein's untold millions, anyone? The criminal's goal is to deceive his mark into believing he or she is being offered a chance to participate in a very lucrative, albeit questionable, transaction. He claims he can't collect the money in his home country, so he needs a foreign partner to act as a conduit. In return for help completing the fund transfer, the 419er offers his foreign partner a cut of the loot.
To prove his identity (and that he does indeed have the $20.5 million) the scammer sends copies of his passport and deposit certificates - all forged, of course. He assures the maga (Nigerian slang for "sucker") that the transaction is 100% risk-free, but implores him to keep all correspondence strictly confidential.
"I receive hundreds of these letters. I really don't know why people respond," says Dr. Hoda Mohammed, a university professor. "I wonder if it's just ignorance, because it's very obvious that it is a scam."
But some people do respond, wrongly believing that since their new partner is offering to transfer money into their bank account, there is no way they can lose. In reality, there is no way the maga can win.
Rather than risk their existing bank account, most victims open a separate zero-balance account. They send the banking details to the scammer, then eagerly await the transfer, plotting to remove some or all of the money as soon as it arrives just to be on the safe side.
"The temptation is very high," says Mohammed. "The [fraudsters]play on the weakest part, which is greed."
Everything seems to be going smoothly, but suddenly a problem arises: A troublesome attorney, bank official or bureaucrat is demanding that a $25,000 fee be paid before releasing the funds. That cash, the 419er will say, can't be deducted from the lump sum: It must be paid in advance. The scammer feigns outrage at the fee, but reminds his maga that once it's paid they will both be rich beyond their wildest dreams.
"No way!" the victim protests. Surprisingly, the fraudster offers to cover most of the fee out of his own pocket. Just to prove he's serious, he sends his partner a cashier's check for $20,000, instructing him to deposit it into his account, add $5,000, then wire the total amount to the fee collector.
Impressed when the check clears, the victim regains trust in the swindler and begins to think maybe the $20.5 million is for real. The reality, however, is that it may take another month for the bank to inform the victim that the check he deposited was fake (generated using another maga's bank details). Not only did he lose $5,000, he may also be charged with abetting bank fraud.
Before this has transpired, the maga may receive an offer to visit the scammer in his home country to sort out the transfer details and assuage any lingering doubts. That travel offer, while very real, could be deadly: Embassies and law enforcement sources say those who accept it are generally robbed, held for ransom - and, on occasion, killed.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
Psychologists argue that the anonymity of the Internet acts as a catalyst for crime. Criminals operating from Internet cafes can hide behind aliases, hijacked accounts or fake ID with a sense of impunity.
"Anonymity encourages criminal acts because people feel they will never be known or discovered," says AUC's Farrag.
The crimes they commit may seem less serious, but they are not.
Fraud is fraud whether it is conducted face-to-face or over 10,000 kilometers of fiber optic cables.
"If it's a crime offline, it's a crime online," asserts Samir Hamza, senior lawyer at Helmy, Hamza & Partners. "If you physically steal money from my pocket, that's a crime. If you use the Internet to steal money from my bank account, that's also a crime."
Unfortunately, even if the real identity of the fraudster is discovered, there is very little law enforcement agencies can do if the victim and perpetrator reside in different countries. Take the case of a scam artist in Belgium who cons an Egyptian out of his money, then funnels it into an offshore bank in the Cayman Islands. The crime involves three different countries, each with its own legal system and level of commitment to fighting Internet fraud.
"There could be positive or negative jurisdiction," says Hamza, referring to situations where all three courts either accept or decline the case. "It must be decided which [country's] law applies and the basis for prosecuting. A crime in Egypt might not be a crime elsewhere." In cases where the perpetrator resides in Egypt, however, the Ministry of Interior can take action. Two years ago, it established a special department to investigate Internet crimes, equipping it with sophisticated IP tracing equipment and a crack team of hacker trackers. The department coordinates with other local and international police agencies, including Interpol, to apprehend and prosecute cyber criminals.
"Many people using the Internet think that they are invisible and nobody can trace them, but they are absolutely wrong," asserts Major General Moustafa Radi, deputy minister of interior and head of the Internet crimes department. "We can identify who used a particular computer at the time the crime was committed."
Criminals who operate out of cyber cafes wrongly believe that by changing locations every day they cannot be caught. Radi is humored by their ignorance.
"We have put Internet cafés under surveillance and have certain rules and regulations that they must follow," he says. "In one case reported from outside Egypt, we traced a perpetrator to an Internet café and caught him red-handed."
Catching the perpetrator does not necessarily mean the victim's money will be returned, so experts advise Internet users to exercise caution whenever dealing with anyone on the Internet.
"Never give any personal information unless you are absolutely certain who you are talking to," warns Dr. Ahmed Sarhan, chairman of the Egyptian Computer Society. "We advise our members that if they receive any strange offers, the best thing to do is ignore them completely. If you ignore them, the people sending them will probably stop." But how do you know if the strange e-mail is a scam?
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