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Internet fraudsters traced to Nigeria

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An acceptance email to present their thesis. Their hearts soared. An all-expenses paid trip to London. Not only would they be fulfilled academically but they would also get to see the capital city in England, for free. This was above and beyond what they had been working for. This kind of opportunity usually took a few years of constant applications to come true. But there it was, in the email inbox, a matter of weeks after sending off the application.

Unfortunately, there are millions of people every day from across the globe receiving emails promising opportunity and financial gain. They prey on the dreams of others in the crudest way. One of the largest scamming phenomenons on the internet originated from Nigeria, West Africa. It is called the "419 scam" which, it is estimated, manages to con $100 million from Americans alone. 

The fraudsters send out a huge volume of emails, normally with a pre-fix to their name like "Prince," or  "Chief" to create a false sense of security.  They will then claim that in order to release a huge amount of money that has come into their possession, they need to transfer it into the victim’s account. They also promise to hand over a cut of their windfall when the ordeal is over. Of course, once the victim has released their personal data, they will have been scammed out of their money and will never hear from the "affluent" character ever again. 

Here in the Philippines, scammers exploit the Filipino’s high work drive and desire for success by offering fake business opportunities. About 11% of the entire Filipino population work abroad as domestic helpers, doctors, caregivers and so on. Each year, more than a million Pinoys strive to get work through overseas employment agencies. Con men soon worked out that these agencies were the prime place to find professional hopefuls looking for opportunity.

*The Isle of Man scam

"Irene," (not her real name) sent the resumé of her husband, "Enrico", to a site called jobstreet.com. Jobstreet is Southeast Asia’s largest online employment company and has around 7 million registered job seekers. Jobstreet also provides a job-matching engine called LiNa, which matches registered hopefuls with positions that may be appropriate for them.

A few months after sending the resumé, Enrico received a job offer on the Isle of Man, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea. Buoyed up with excitement with a new life and career in the British Isles seemingly within their grasp, they stopped for a moment to ask if it was too good to be true. After studying the email again, they discovered that it was, in fact, a scam, and had they parted with the requested $125 deposit, they would never have heard from the scammers again. They replied that Enrico’s father was of military background, and would track down the conmen in a light-hearted retaliation. Of course, it would not have been so light-hearted had they been robbed of their money.

Assuming that Jobstreet itself was not into the con artist industry, it is possible that a hacker managed to access the personal files of the hopefuls registered on the site. Ron Tolentino, a Jobstreet employee, helpfully told me that "We are the only ones that can access the database, of course." When asked if complaints of scamming are common, he replied that, to his knowledge, there had only ever been "a handful. Around two."
*Fake 'Island Garden Hotel'

Unfortunately, it seems that that figure is a tiny portion or the true number of people affected by false business proposals. In February this year, "Rick" (not his real name) and his team of 5 other students preparing a thesis about how climate change affects human health, had applied to present their findings at several conferences. Within a week, one had replied. It was an offer for a much sought after 30-minute presentation slot in London.

The group was overjoyed. Incredibly excited, they read over the email. Airfare, visas and accommodation all paid for. They had to carry out the very difficult task of selecting the required team number of 3 of them to go. They told their professors and excused themselves from class.

Then came the issue of the deposit. The "organizers" of the conference named "Climate Change Working Group 2011," had given them the name of the hotel, Island Garden Hotel, in a nice area of London. The website looked legitimate. The organizers had one condition, they needed P40,000 to put down a deposit for the room. Smelling a rat, Rick’s dad became involved in the process. He was suspicious as usually conferences cover all the expenses and don’t ask delegates to come forward with any kind of money.

Tracking the hotel website’s IP address, they traced it to Nigeria. This, of course, raises every warning flag, and all was devastatingly confirmed when they came across a very similar "acceptance" letter to the one which they received on a scam forum website. According to Rick, the letter did contain a few grammatical errors, ones which they overlooked in the excitement of the moment, but now realize should have been completely absent in a letter from an academic institute.

The websites for both the "Island Garden Hotel" (islandgardenhotel.com) and "Climate Change Working Group 2011," (ccwg11.com) now both telling come up with a blank page but for a sign reading "This site is under construction." The group of students later emailed the British embassy in Manila, but to no response. Disgruntled, they have not attempted to apply for any more overseas conferences but have since appeared in more local ones. Rick’s advice for future hopefuls? "Don’t get too excited. Usually conferences ask for papers a year in advance." 

*Preying on nurses

One particular professional field which scammers prey on is nursing. With over 200,000 people out of work in the Philippines due to lack of vacancies in hospitals, they try to go abroad to where their skills will be appreciated. So while there are many genuine agencies helping these nurses fulfill their potential in countries such as the USA, UK, and Canada, other organizations are less sincere.

There are a smattering which, though not technically being untruthful, are dishonest in their actions and offer an English language improvement scheme for Pinoy nurses heading to New Zealand. After selling all they have to get onto the scheme, they usually arrive in New Zealand and struggle to find work in hospitals, despite the language improvement scheme they underwent. Many find themselves being forced into taking the role of care givers in homes rather than nurses in hospitals, as hospitals prefer to hire locals, something they were not informed of by the agency.

So comes the question--how do you spot a false scam letter? There are a number of factors that nearly always come into play: there will be a sense of urgency about the proposal. Rick’s acceptance letter came within a week of applying when legitimate conferences usually stew over their decision for a full year. There will be a request for money. There may be grammatical errors, and perhaps a frequent use of capitals. There is a chance that confidentiality is mentioned in the letter. Finally, if the correspondence is mainly written, request a telephone number before you continue. (Abs-Cbn)

By Helen Hoddinott




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