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Poster for Film: 419 The Nigerian Scam

May is Scam Awareness Month in the UK, but scams go on all the year round.

Most of us must have had at least one phone call from somebody, perhaps with an Indian accent, asking for us by name, saying he is from Microsoft and they’ve had reports of serious virus problems in your computer or excessive slowness. Even if you’ve had slowness, this is the moment to hang up. It’s a scam.

But thousands of Britons don’t. They are afraid their computer is at risk from a virus and they follow the instructions from the caller to open a program called ‘Windows Event Viewer’ which appears to be a list of critical errors. They download a program which gifts remote control of the PC to the caller. They pay around £185 for the ‘subscription’ to the ‘preventative service’.

The sorry tale was well documented by Charles Arthur in The Guardian (July 2010), who said there was never any computer virus, the call was not from Microsoft and ‘a complete stranger has total control of that PC’. Or those PCs, as several thousand a year are scammed by this which is based, Arthur believed, in Kolkata call centres.

They get names and numbers and addresses from phone directories. Sufficient numbers of worried, elderly or vulnerable people are caught to make it worth their whiles. It’s an illegal business worth millions, yet police and authorities in Europe are generally powerless to combat it.

Debit card payments cannot be stopped. PayPal for instance has always acted fast against scam sites once alerted. Arthur reported on site hosting firm Hostgator who received complaints and checked with Microsoft and then shut ‘’ within minutes.

Of course, fraudsters simply set up a new site, new payment facilities to entice new victims. They use templates to create multiple sites. They flood them with apparent references from people ‘helped to clean their PCs’. Often poor English spelling and grammar don’t seem to deter victims from becoming hooked.

Other Hoaxes

Hoaxslayer is just one site that carries warnings, explanations and guidance about internet scams lying in wait for the unwary surfer. They range from:

virus email hoaxes (like Merry Christmas, Olympic torch, teddy bear virus)

to Nigerian scams (Nigerian, or “419”, scams claim your help of advance fees is needed to access non-existent millions of dollars and could also lead to your identity being stolen)

to unsubstantiated emails on which the advice is that as it is almost impossible to confirm or deny the information in most emails, they should be classified as ‘unsubstantiated’.

Phishing and Pharming

There are phishing scams, email chain letter hoaxes, giveaway hoaxes, bogus warnings of viruses, email petitions and protests, celebrity email cons, prank emails, missing child emails, payment transfer scams, job offer deceits, computer security set-ups, lottery scams, internet dating cons, spam control lies, bogus charity emails and funny email scams.

This category, of course, depends on what strength of humour you are blessed with. An email inviting you to ‘show your bum;’ or of a photo of a cat holding a gun as a warning to dog owners may raise a smile. One saying that opening the attachment will launch a nuclear strike will not amuse everybody.

Pharming is a more sophisticated cousin of phishing. A victim’s system is compromised by secretly installing malicious software or modifying the browser’s host file, or they infiltrate DNS cache poisoning into the DNS server.

Lottery cheque scams are increasing, whereby the victim does receive a cheque for a small amount to go towards a bigger fee to release some international lottery win. Word-of-mouth or share-your-experience emails claim that ‘somebody has just searched the web for a story about you’ and here is how to stop it or join in, depending on the nature of the story about you!

The overpayment cheque scam cons somebody who has advertised a big item for sale. The conners send a cheque for more money and ask for the difference to be electronically transferred to an ’agent’. The item is withdrawn from further offers. The seller sends the money and finds later that the cheque bounces.

Anybody can fall victim to a con, nobody is immune. Somebody somewhere is trying to steal something from somebody whether it be money, possessions, time or ideas. All we can do is stay as vigilant as possible.

Admire their entrepreneurial approach?

Finally, from California comes news of fifty high school students facing suspension over hacking into their school’s database and amending their attendance records. For a time the scam allowed them to play truant while records showed teachers and parents that they had actually been in school!

The Guardian, Charles Arthur, Virus phone scam…   July 2010.

Image: Sorin Mihailovici