Given the regular warnings from my real bank that I should never divulge personal details or passwords via email, I fail to understand how people continue to fall for this.
Hopes and dreams are the online bait of phishing scams
Like almost everyone, I receive many unsolicited emails asking me for information about myself or offering me large sums of money from another country to which I am not in the least entitled. They're all connected with internet crime in some way and usually destined for the delete folder - although this time I've made an exception.
Most "phishing" scams seeking personal information are easy to detect. Emails, purportedly from a bank, telling me that there is some problem with my account, when I've never had an account with the bank in question, are the simplest. Given the regular warnings from my real bank that I should never divulge personal details or passwords via email, I fail to understand how people continue to fall for this. Obviously there are some hapless victims, or else the scammers would give up the game.
Then there are the emails, usually claiming to come from a bank or government somewhere in Africa, saying that the sender has several million dollars he or she is trying to get out of the country. Just by chance, they've found my details in a commercial directory and saw straight away that I could be trusted with the sum.
A similar unlikely scenario is when the relative of some high-profile personality needs help transferring some absurd amount of money out of the country, or people claiming to be lawyers ask me to pretend to be the heir to someone with the same surname in return for a share in the mythical jackpot.
In some cases, the sender gives himself away by the quality of the language or by obvious inconsistencies and contradictions. One magnificent example I received last week came from a "Sir William R Gillian, Jr, Chief Postal Inspection Service" of the US Post Office Authority, asking me to contact an agent in Madrid and pay $98 (Dh360) to obtain credit cards.
The address of the sender was siirwilliamsgilliam "Your prompt response is most highly desired to terminate the delivering of your parcel."
There are other more effective approaches that trap the unwary. These usually take much longer to develop - the long con as opposed to the quick fix. Last week, a Filipina acquaintance of mine who works in a shop in an Abu Dhabi mall approached me for advice. Through an internet chat site, she had been contacted by someone who claimed to be working for a major offshore drilling company.
Carefully, over several months, he had groomed her, eliciting information about her family and providing, presumably fictitious, details about his in return. He would, he said, help her to obtain a post with his company if she filled in a form he sent her.
He offered her training in South Africa, followed by the UK. To sugar the pill, he said he was a widower with a 17-year-old daughter, who also took part in the email campaign. Presumably as the clincher, he then offered to marry my acquaintance.
Her friends had warned her that it was almost certainly fraud and that it was just a matter of time until a demand for money, probably for some reasonable "expense" like document processing. But last week, she sent the form anyway and by last Thursday no demand had arrived. On Friday, she told me the tale and asked me what I thought.
The document he had sent her looked reasonably authentic, with proper English and the letterhead of a very respectable company. But the email address looked a little fishy. Rather than a professional address including the name of the company, it was a hotmail account. Most large companies don't recruit using hotmail addresses or other personal accounts.
So I warned her off. Later, when I checked the legitimate website of the company, I found a prominent warning about a similar fraud. No money wasted, no harm done, apart from the raised hopes of my friend. A little sadder and wiser, she won't make the same mistake again.
Every now and then, I follow up some of pitches I have received out of curiosity and a desire to waste some of the con man's time to get him excited about the possibility that he may have hooked another fish. So, from an email address I've set up for this specific purpose, I've written to the gentleman who had been grooming my friend, inquiring about employment. It will be interesting to see how, or if, he responds.
Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant specialising in the UAE's history, heritage and environment