Money-making magic. Ardent admirers on Facebook. Multiple payments for a MacBook that never arrives. These are some of the oldest tricks in the book, and yet people still fall for them. Why?
A man contacts you on Skype. He says he’s American, and he saw your Gumtree ad selling your barely-worn pair of branded shoes and wants to purchase it as a present for his daughter, who is studying in Thailand.
Would you be so kind, he asks earnestly, to mail the item directly to his daughter? He would be happy to pay upfront for the shoes and postage costs via bank transfer, no questions asked.
Chances are, if you’re desperate enough to get rid of the shoes (and make a quick buck in the process), you would say yes.
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And if so, ‘congratulations!’ You just got scammed.
What? How is it a scam?
After acceding to the request, you will receive an “official” transaction email from the buyer’s “bank” (CitiBank Group), saying that payment has been made but will be withheld until you send proof of postage.
Once you’ve done so, the “bank” emails you again, saying that they are unable to credit payment since your account has not been activated for receiving US transactions. As such, they have charged the buyer a service fee of $650 first, which you’ll have to reimburse. And of course, the angry buyer hounds you to pay up immediately – to his representative account in Singapore.
Wondering what on earth is going on?
Well, you’ve just encountered a variation of the classic PayPal email scam. In this case, the “bank” isn’t really a bank (FYI, Citibank is listed as “Citibank”, not “CitiBank” or “CitiBank Group”), and the buyer likely isn’t a genuine buyer. In fact, the two are probably in cahoots to cheat you.
What you lose: not just your item and the expensive postage fee, but more importantly, your private personal details like bank account number, signature (needed for the postage receipt), and home address. With those details, there’s little to stop the conmen from forging your signature and cleaning out your bank account.
Wow, that sounds devious
The scam above first surfaced in December last year and has happened a few times since. It was reported on whistle-blower site Scam Alert Singapore.
We usually hear horror stories about people being conned by online merchants into buying the latest gadgets at impossibly low prices (“Brand new iPad Air 2 for only $300!”). The unsuspecting buyer pays in advance to have the item delivered, or is told to make further payments for customs duties and delivery charges, only to realise in the end that the item never arrives.
But the truth is, scams these days come in many more shapes and forms – some can be pretty elaborate and deviously-crafted, like the example we’ve given above – and they happen much more often than we think.
According to statistics released by the Singapore Police Force, there has been a significant surge in the number of scams involving e-commerce, which more than tripled from 510 in 2013 to 1,659 in 2014.
Social media platforms, in particular, are increasingly becoming the platform of choice for cybercriminals, and it looks like Singaporeans are far from immune. Just last week, we were ranked 7th in the Asia-Pacific and 33rd globally for social media scams. (Not quite the kind of ranking we want to be known for.)
But perhaps that’s the price we pay for being connected all the time to our mobile devices, which often contain security weaknesses and leak private information such as our name, email address, home address, date of birth, or even credit card details.
I don’t think it’ll happen to me…
You might be thinking, “Oh, most scams have obvious red flags, and I’ll be stupid to fall for one.” But the truth is, scams are crimes that can happen to anyone, given the right con man and a victim with the right set of circumstances.
Don’t believe me? Check out this Straits Times reporter’s story about being the perfect victim of a con artist. (As the newspaper’s consumer correspondent, she would probably have known better than most about the perils of online scams.)
The reason for her downfall? In a word: over-confidence.
Scams often succeed because of two things. Firstly, a scam looks like the real deal. It appears to meet your need or desire. To see if it is in fact a scam, you must first make the effort to verify the details, be it running a search on the seller’s track record or something as simple as checking the letterhead logo and email address (especially for phishing scams).
Secondly, scammers manipulate you by pushing the buttons to produce the emotional response they want. They prey on any vulnerability they sense, and have no qualms about exploiting your hopes, fears and anxieties in order to convince you into parting with your cash. These are some examples of common psychological tricks scammers use.
Think about the first time you fell in love or a time when someone cut your queue and left you seething for hours. Were you thinking clearly? Probably not. Those who believe they’d never fall for a scam don’t realise it’s not about how smart you are; it’s about how well you can control your emotions. Scam victims make themselves vulnerable when they can’t separate their emotions from when they make financial decisions.
If you think about it, your best defence against scams is not that difficult: be cautious, vigilant, and logical. Don’t be too quick to trust someone you don’t know. Don’t assume that everyone has good intentions. And if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Here are some additional tips from a veteran con artist on how not to get burned:
- Never make a buying decision when you’ve just heard the sales pitch. Always give yourself at least 24 hours to think about it. This gives you time for the emotional effects of the sales presentation to subside – and time for you to do research.
- Don’t ever share personal information about your family or about your worries with people who are trying to sell you something.
- In any interaction with someone trying to sell you a deal, always ask yourself, “What’s in it for them?” In other words, if this is such a great deal, why are they calling you about it? Why don’t they just do it themselves?
The bottom line is, scammers don’t have to be criminal masterminds, and you don’t have to be stupid to actually fall for a scam.
Let’s get past thinking that falling for a scam is the fault of the victim. Perhaps the victim didn’t question the scammer enough; perhaps they were too naïve to believe that there’s a way of getting rich quick. Whatever it is, they’re not the ones who should be blamed and subject to public ridicule.
Oftentimes, it’s the fear of being seen as stupid that leads victims to not report scams that they’ve fallen for. It is this silence that allows scammers to keep toting their tricks. And perhaps those of us who think we’re too clever to be scammed should remember that.