Imagine this: you get an SMS saying that your number has been randomly chosen in a BlackBerry lottery and you are the lucky winner of R70 000. All you have to do is call the number back with your reference code and banking details. Would you call back, genuinely believing that it was your lucky day, or would you incredulously roll your eyes, certain that it is just another swindle? Most people are quick to say that they are not that gullible, despite the fact that these scams reap millions of US dollars every year.

Perdeby investigates exactly how these fraudsters operate, how people keep falling victim to them and what’s being done to bring the offenders to task.

“I have 15,000,000.00 U.S. Dollars and I want you to assist me in distributing the money to charity organizations. I agree to reward you with part of the money for your assistance, kindness and participation in this Godly project.”

So begins one example of the infamous 419 advance fee scam emails (also known as “Nigerian 419 scams”, “Advance fee fraud scams” or “Nigerian scams”). A typical 419 email pitches some sort of story that puts the sender in the impossible situation of trying to get rid of (or gain access to) a large sum of money. If the receiver agrees to help, the sender forwards multiple official-looking documents. Eventually, the fraudster presents a situation where the victim has to pay an advance fee in order to complete the deal. Although 419 scams have successfully swindled millions of US dollars from people all over the world, their occurrence has waned over the years.

Other popular domains for scammers in South Africa are online classifieds websites like Gumtree and Junkmail, where scammers reportedly advertise products and collect payment for them, but never provide the products. Scammers have also been known to buy goods through the websites, collect them and never pay for them. Even with a police order, it is difficult to track down the perpetrators and press charges since no formal contract has been signed. The websites assume no liability for any user’s failure to deliver. James van der Plank, a second-year IT student, says that he tried to sell his old iPad on Gumtree a year ago and was never paid for it. “The guy gave me some story about how he needed to go overseas soon and wouldn’t be able to wait for the money to clear so that I could send [the iPad]. Like an idiot I bought his story and mailed him the iPad, but the money never came through.” Van der Plank says that he was never able to get a hold of him after that.

It’s easy to say that only the naïve and gullible fall for frauds, but scammers get smarter and harder to spot every day. ATM and bank fraud is still on the rise in South Africa and often it isn’t because of negligence on the victim’s part. Recently, phishing scammers have been able to go undetected by anti-spyware software. According to security software giant Symantec’s July 2011 Intelligence Report, South Africa is the country with the second highest incidence of attempted phishing attacks.

Khosi Sokhulu, a third-year BEd student, says that she was cheated out of her money after buying into employment fraud. “I fell for a ‘work from home’ scam. You pay R200 for ‘training material’ then they don’t get back to you. I just felt naïve and used.” Scams similar to this one are all over the internet, even on social networking sites like Twitter. Spam accounts are set up to tweet about “work from home” or “get paid for your tweets” job opportunities.

Earlier this month it was reported that fraudsters in South Africa were circulating email letters with government logos, including the logos of the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) and Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan’s name. Jabulani Sikhakhane, spokesperson for the Department of Finance, made a statement warning the public not to trust these emails and not to provide anyone claiming to work for the government with their personal information. “South Africans who are forever looking for opportunities for making easy money become easy prey for scams. There is no easy walk to wealth,” he says.

It’s hard to not get even slightly excited when you find out that you might have won an iPhone or a trip to Belize. It’s hard to resist the allure of a get-rich-quick scheme even when you know better. Sometimes even the strictest of sceptics can fall for an innocent-seeming hoax, otherwise the con artists behind them would have given up long ago. A good place to start if you want to avoid being scammed is spelling and grammar: reputable companies pay good money to ensure that their copy is impeccable, so such errors should always raise flags. Also, keep in mind that if you haven’t entered a competition, you’re not likely to win one. No one is that lucky. Finally and most importantly: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Image: Charne Fourie

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