Scammers: the scourge of the earth or just desperate people trying to make a fast buck on a short con? I don't know about you, but I lean heavily towards the former. It seems that scammers are pulling a fast one everywhere these days: on the internet, via the telephone or even face to face. Do I pity the victims? That depends on the circumstances of the rip-off. But in this day and age, there should be no excuse for giving strangers your bank details, even if they insist they work at your bank.
Or sending US$110 (Dh404) via Western Union to a guy in Lagos, Nigeria (cue alarm bells when this country is mentioned in relation to cyber fraud), who claims he has a million dollars stashed away - for, of all things, internet scam victims - and needs somebody to send it to. Replying to even one of the thousands of e-mails that land in our inboxes every year in the hope of getting, say, a slice of the late Saddam Hussein's fortune, is a recipe for disaster, as is even believing that this type of story is plausible.
But for every scammer-savvy person, there will always be one bozo out there who will reply and end up losing their life savings, giving the scammers more fodder, confidence and cash to work with to continue their illegal operations. According to the US-based Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov), a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, it received a total of 336,655 complaints last year, up 22.3 per cent from 2008.
In 2009 alone, it adds, Americans lost a total of $559.7 million to cyber fraud, which begs the question: how is this possible in the 21st century? I've been thinking a lot about scammers lately, prompted by a recent call on my mobile phone by a man claiming to work for Etisalat. "Hello," he said. "I am from Etisalat and I am happy to tell you that you have a lucky mobile phone number and you have won Dh500,000."
Now, I know that I'm not a lucky person. In fact, I've never won anything of note, unlike, for instance, a woman in Texas who recently won the lottery for the fourth time. That's right, she's won a couple of million dollars four times since 1993 - what are the odds of that happening? I also know that I'm not stupid. But the guy at the other end of the line doesn't know this, so I thought I could have some fun. Maybe even give him a run for his money - Dh500,000 worth of it.
"Wow; Dh500,000," I said, trying not to sound sarcastic. "Lucky me! How is that possible?" "You have a lucky mobile number," he repeated, going on to recite my number to me, which, thanks to the scammer-aware person that I am, we won't be reproducing here. "I see," I said. "And where are you calling from?" "Etisalat." "Where's your office?" "Sharjah." "Are you experiencing power cuts?" "What power cuts?"
"[Gotcha!] Why are you calling me from a mobile phone?" "All of our landlines are busy." "You are a very dedicated worker." "Yes, I am." "Are you really from Etisalat?" "Yes." "Are you sure?" Click. He hung up. For the first time, I'm grateful that you can't block mobile numbers in the UAE. Harass the scammer is my newfound motto, and I'm pretty sure there are no rules governing the etiquette of scam calls.
If he can call me unannounced and pretend to be somebody he's not as part of a ruse to rip me off, then surely, I reason, I can call him. And let's face it, it's not as though he is going to report me for making a few, admittedly unwanted, calls to his number. I ring back. He disconnects the call without answering. I try again. The number is now engaged; no doubt, he's moved on to his next victim. I try again a few minutes later and this time, he picks up.
"Hello," I said. "You just called to say I'd won Dh500,000." "Yes." "What do I have to do to collect my prize?" "You have to go to UAE Exchange with your fax number ..." And here he becomes inaudible thanks to loud voices in the background, but no doubt the information he wants me to hand over includes my bank account details. I wonder if he's in a room full of men who are also randomly dialling numbers in the hope of finding somebody who will take the bait. Unfortunately, I will never know.
"What's your Etisalat employee ID?" I ask. Predictably, he hangs up again. I try to call back. Engaged. And again. Still engaged. I give up and decide to try the next day. I've been calling the number a couple of times a day since our last conversation, only to be told via a voice recording that the number is temporarily out of service. So there go my plans for some cheap summer fun. I was hoping to string him along a little longer and then report him - and the number - to the police and to Etisalat.
In the meantime, I'm hoping that he'll call back. I've even saved his number so I'll be a little more prepared next time.