A few months ago, I came across this article in The New York Times about a woman who had struck up an online romance with a man who said he was a United States soldier stationed overseas. He claimed to have over $12 million worth of gold from Syria but needed her help to bring it to America, so she wired nearly $100,000.00 to his account.
As it would turn out, the woman was just one of more than 30 victims of a complex scam that defrauded people of over $2 million. The profile photos used in the accounts used to contact the victims were those of real US servicemen. The accounts, however, were fakes created by a gang of Ghanaians who stole the soldiers’ identities and sweet-talked their victims.
Closer to home, my friend, James Deakin – a well-known automotive journalist and an influential online personality – received quite a shock to be contacted on Instagram by a woman who said she had been chatting with him on Facebook and asking why he stopped communicating after she had wired him the funds he asked for.
James had no idea what was going on and was surprised to learn that like the US soldier, his identity was also being used to bait and defraud vulnerable individuals.
We might have joked about it as “pogi-problems,” but at the heart of it is a serious crime that often leads to devastating, real-life consequences.
The victims, most often women, are selected for their perceived “soft spots.” Their compassion, trusting nature, or their loneliness can be used to manipulate them into transferring significant amounts to accounts abroad where it is immediately withdrawn and can no longer be recovered.
In addition to losing their money, victims often find themselves shunned by their families who are unable to trust them again. In the case of the woman in the story I read, she ended her life when she realized that she had fallen for a scam and had wired away nearly all of her retirement fund.
A bank may have solid cybersecurity systems in place, but when account holders themselves authorize transfers or provide their actual log-in information to other people, it will have no choice but to facilitate the transfer or to recognize the log-in and subsequent transactions as valid.
I personally have a very deep sympathy for victims of fraud. I have a few friends who have been scammed out of thousands of pesos from fake online sellers who required full payment of items via bank transfer, and then never delivered the items. It is very frustrating, especially once you realize that you were fooled out of your hard-earned money.
I believe fighting online fraud is the joint responsibility of institutions and individuals.
Institutions such as banks should have adequate security systems to protect client accounts, and do their part in educating their customers and the public of cybersecurity risks.
Our friends from the media can help by reporting on ongoing and emerging scams and by disseminating tips on how to avoid being victimized. While social media companies can help by weeding out fake accounts and promoting user awareness and education on social media safety.
Individuals would do well to be more circumspect about what they share online. Your photos, status updates, and the posts you share can reveal a lot about your state of mind, financial standing, and the things that matter to you – all of which a clever scammer can use to manipulate you.
We should take online interactions – especially ones with strangers – with a huge grain of salt. I remember a line in a movie that said, “never trust a beautiful woman – especially one who’s interested in you.” It may sound a bit harsh, but there is wisdom in not being too trusting.
As the old saying goes, “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
The author is the head of corporate affairs and communications at BPI