It used to be that spam only came via our email inboxes. And while we all are rather jaded about Nigerian scammers, the Nigerian scams now come in different flavours. They modify and localise the names of people to sound more or less like someone the recipient might know.
And I always thought these scammers are good because they tap into our human desires of greed.
Until recently, that is. Scammers also tap into our human desire to be loved, appreciated and wanted.
My friend told me a few weeks ago that her niece who was worried about her mum (my friend’s sister). It seemed that her mum, recently widowed and home alone, had found a new friend on Facebook.
Her mum is in her 60s and while she lived with her daughter and son-in-law, she was alone much of the day as her daughter and son-in-law were busy most of the time running their own businesses.
A well-meaning relative thought it would be fun for Mrs A to join in the fun online by downloading the Facebook app to her smartphone. After all, she could connect with the rest of the extended family and be able to assuage her loneliness by reading their newsfeed and viewing their family photos.
It was all good fun until she was privately messaged by a stranger on Facebook who complimented her.
All women should have enough scepticism to spot a scam a mile away. If I could teach girls and women one thing, I’d teach them how to spot scams dressed in cheesy compliments. Every girl and woman should have enough self-assurance to go “Reeeaaaallly????” while raising one sarcastic brow!
I have received enough “compliments” from “men” on LinkedIn (yes, they’ve infiltrated that platform too), Facebook and Google+.
Recently I discovered that WhatsApp is also a new modus operandi. Some scammer gets your phone number (which is fairly easy these days considering how our phone numbers are literally everywhere online) and sends you an innocuous message like this: Hi (your name), I have this problem (inserts link).
You see, we can’t help but let our guard down when someone addresses us by name. It’s the first and easiest method to remove scepticism. If someone knows me, he must be a friend.
Not true. If that person were my friend, he’d be in my Contact list and his name would appear in WhatsApp instead of his phone number. When I see these messages, I immediately (and with great flourish and extreme satisfaction) report and block the number for good. Of course, scammers don’t let up. They’d just change phone numbers or move on to easier targets.
In Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn, these scammers have profile photos which border on so much cheesiness that I suspect there must be a book or course on Scamming 101.
Maybe they were told Asian women like clean-shaven white men in their 30s who pose with babies or puppies. Oh, it helps if they’re in some army uniform. Well, we all want some disciplined, tough-as-nails general in some fantasy right? Give me Tom Keen of The Blacklist any day!
If I discover even a tiny amount of fakery, I go delete, delete and report spam. There are truly lots of weirdos online.
Anyway, back to Mrs A’s story. While her relative had good intentions to get Mrs A online and help her get connected, she forgot that the online world can be dangerous for an innocent woman, whom up till then, was living a fully offline life!
Mrs A’s husband had passed on not long ago. Perhaps she just wanted to be friends with the man (but scammers can pretend to be men or women, depending on the situation) and they started chatting. She gave him her life story – that she was newly widowed and in her 60s and mostly alone in the day as her children worked. Perhaps she even told him she had inherited some money from her late husband.
When Mrs A’s daughter called my friend a.k.a her aunt to speak of her worry about her mum, I suggested that they could try deleting the Facebook app from her smartphone. Knowing that Mrs A isn’t tech-savvy at all, she wouldn’t know how to download the app again. That would stop all communication with the man.
But scammers can be sneaky indeed. Mrs A, whom I heard was a technophobe, soon graduated from Facebook chats to email! The man was now emailing her sweet nothings and promising the earth and the sky and the heaven.
He even called her and she believed that he was an American just waiting to hop on a plane and visit her in Penang! All this happened while my friend and her family kept telling her that the man was fake and it was all a scam.
But do women in love believe these truths? No. She lived in her own dreamland, fantasising about the day when her handsome American boyfriend would sweep her off her feet! She believed he must be real because he had spoken to her on the phone and he had an accent.
I vacillate between pity and empathy for Mrs A because she has never been romanced like this, not even by her late husband. She was like a young girl again, full of romantic hope that fairy tales do come true. Her sensitive, caring American boyfriend was going to give her a second chance at being a princess. Perhaps she also felt wanted and appreciated.
That is why I say, scammers probably have doctorates in psychology. They tap into our deepest desires and fears. They bait us with their cunning empathy and feed into emotional needs that are often buried.
You know what’s sadder than being led around like a fool?
Mrs A gave her boyfriend RM95,000 based on some stupid sob story he told her. When my friend angrily recounted the story, I was dumbfounded. Here’s an elderly woman who gave away her life savings to a stranger whose opening line was “You are so beautiful!”
When I found my voice, I asked her how this happened. Did she transfer the money to him online?
Nope. Imagine this: she rode her motorbike to the bank and somehow withdrew her money and remitted it into his account! OHMYFREAKINGGOD. Some people might wonder if she had been under a spell (kena santau) but this spell is stronger than what a witch doctor can conjure – love itself can be quite a heady spell! Caucasian love – double that.
Her family were crazy angry and immediately took her to the police station to lodge a report. Up till then, she was adamant she was giving him a loan to help him as he was “stranded in KLIA”. I don’t know how being stranded and needing money linked up but she believed in his tale of woe. Even the policemen told her that it was definitely a scam. Mrs A refused to believe it. A few days after making the report, she secretly went to the police station to withdraw her report!
So, is there a good ending to this utterly sad story? What are scammers made of? It baffles me that there is a career for scumbags of the earth who revel in creating stories to manipulate an elderly woman who just lost her husband, feeding her with imagined love and hope and draining away her hard-earned money.
I am still justifiably angered that this happened. My friend is keeping an eye on her sister because she knows if she joins the rest of the family in berating her, Mrs A will clam up and maybe lose even more money! By talking to her without resorting to blame and anger, my friend hopes she can slowly talk her sister into some sense and see the scammer for what he truly is.
The online world is where my business and future is and I am for going online and using the Internet for a greater good. But I also believe that women, young and old, need to be able to separate fact from fiction. Being online for more than 20 years now has helped me create a sort of bullshit meter and I am always cautious when something or someone sounds too good to be true. I trust my gut feelings or subconscious more than my logical brain because my gut is often an accurate judge of people and their characters. I read somewhere that it’s because our senses are more attuned to disconnects than our logical consciousness allows for. Our subconscious protects us from dangerous situations and people.
This is why having a sense of self, of knowing who you are, is important to all women, no matter what age we are. I didn’t know who I was when I was young but I wished someone older and wiser had taken me under her wing and taught me about myself. If we know who we are, deep inside, we’d all be a lot more grounded and wiser. It has taken me years and years to realise this. Perhaps one day, I will have a programme to teach this – knowing who you are is game-changing. It is about understanding your own power and what you are capable of. Oprah once said that you don’t give your power to others; you own your power (I am paraphrasing).
While it is beautiful to wish for happily ever after, know that romance is a construct that can sometimes damage us (look at what happened to Mrs A!). I wasn’t exactly a die-hard Mills and Boons fan but I did indulge in these books when I was a teen.
In that same vein, let me leave you with something that is hopeful and hilarious as hell.
Watch this TED talk of how a British comedian, James Veitch decided to turn the table on a scammer. It’s so devilishly good.