I Am A Nigerian Prince Or …

How to Avoid Cons & Scams Online

Educate Yourself

More North Americans than ever are buying stuff online. While the number of purchases is increasing, so is consumer awareness of online fraud. And although awareness is growing, a lot of consumers seem to think they’re either immune or helpless to protect themselves against being scammed. Neither is completely true.

The good news is that there’s nothing new under the sun. That means we can learn from the past. People with money have been scammed by people who want to get their hands on that money since forever. The first and by far the most important thing a shopper can bring to any interaction is their common sense. This includes never ignoring a gut-feeling, and treating every financial transaction as though you were physically standing in a shop, talking with its owner.

StaySafeOnline.org provides an excellent guideline of specific ways in which you can guard your personal privacy and protect yourself against online purchasing blunders. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has also provided this handy guide, Online shopping fraud: from a buyer or seller’s point of view.

I’m going to take this learning journey one step further. Everyone should watch a few David Mamet films. To start, try either House of Games or Glengarry Glen Ross. First off, I promise you’ll have way more fun with a Mamet film than you’ll ever have reading advice bullets. And second, watching a Mamet film is guaranteed to enlighten you on the timeless craft of the short and long confidence game. It will show you how a person becomes a mark or target – and therefore how to avoid becoming one yourself – and exactly how con-artists ply their craft of deception. If you apply what you learn from watching these films to your daily life, you’re much more likely to stay safe in any situation.

Be a Credible Seller

As a professional copywriter, I often tell clients that correct spelling, punctuation, and proper grammar are some of the most important elements of their website. These may seem like insignificant details to some people — but it’s little things like these that help give an online business its credibility. As it turns out, RCMP Corporal John Montgomery agrees. He says that one of the first and most obvious indicators of a fraudulent website can be found just by carefully reading through the content, looking for red flags which, he says, are spelling mistakes and clumsy language that reads like an awkward or amateur translation.

A website riddled with language errors can alert a buyer to a get-rich-quick scam – something that was hastily and sloppily constructed that can just as hastily be taken down and replaced by a 404 page. A website is the public face of a business. if its owners can’t be bothered to pay attention to details like spelling or grammar, what other corners will they cut? By the same token, would you buy a cake from a filthy bakery?

While large corporations hire copywriters and proofreaders to ensure their sites look professional, smaller businesses that need such legitimacy more because they are unknown are much less likely to do so. They tend to make do and reuse old copy from past marketing materials, without revision, updating or proofing. A best defence against having a website that looks shady to consumers is to use the services of a professional copywriter, copyeditor and/or proofreader. The rest is then, of course, up to you. Establish a solid online customer base by being reliable, and delivering a quality product at the promised price and date.

Don’t Be A Mark

Over the past few decades I’ve interviewed scores of people while wearing my various hats: journalist, public relations specialist, performing arts promotor, season ticket seller, and market researcher. Consistently I am astonished, incredulous and appalled by how much personal private data ordinary people are perfectly willing to give up on the phone to a complete stranger because they ‘trust your voice.’

It’s a cliche but sadly true: seniors are absolutely the most vulnerable population. It breaks my heart when I hear about them being hoodwinked by unscrupulous con-artists who take advantage of their kindness, loneliness, isolation, and trusting natures. When seniors with fixed incomes end up losing their pensions and savings to scammers, it’s untenable. But what really gets under my skin are the nickel-and-dime cons, like cable companies that convince seniors that, in order to be able to watch their one can’t-miss television show, they have to sign long-term contracts for expensive plans for digital products they’ll never use, don’t understand, and don’t know even know how to set up or make function. It should be illegal — but it’s not, and it’s done every day.

In my experience, people of any age and gender are much too easily persuaded by a friendly, empathetic voice. I’ve made countless calls that began with the subject declaring “I’m not telling you anything,” and ended with them pouring out much more detail than I ever asked for or needed. Quite often, those who protest the most vehemently at the onset of a call are the ones who end up spilling their life stories. A seasoned interviewer can actually sense the exact moment in which the bond of ‘confessor’ is formed; it’s that moment the con-artist builds toward. After that, they’re just taking candy from a baby.

Never tell anyone more about yourself than they need to know. That’s not being suspicious or rude, it’s using common sense and protecting yourself.

People want to trust each other. People want to help. People want to be liked. People want to believe something incredibly great can happen to them. These are the ways in which each of us is vulnerable. And exploiting these ‘weaknesses’ or foibles of human nature is what the con-artist does. This is why narratives about how ordinary, decent, honest people have been scammed by the unscrupulous never ever surprise me.

It’s critical to realize that although the tools used to deliver the message may change over time – be it email, website, mobile phone, land-line telephone, in a store, or at your front door – the psychology of the con doesn’t. Much as trusting people hate to think it, there are others who’ve made it their business to study human vulnerabilities. Some work their scams on a small scale with people around them – the acquaintance who keeps borrowing and never repays, the coworker who finds creative ways to shift money around to hide what’s gone into their own pocket – while others prey on people on a larger scale by whatever means they have a their disposal.

All of which brings me to the Nigerian Prince Letter, aka the 419 Scam. In his article Spanish Prisoners And Confidence Games, Robert Whitaker shows when and how such cons first originated, supported by copies of old letters that are almost verbatim the quintessential email scam letter of today. He dates the earliest such letter back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. And here they are again. Or still.

Because, here’s the thing: they work.

© L D’anna 2017. For reprinting and other permissions, please contact the author.

Resources Nigerian Prince email scam actually 200 years old | Beauty Isn’t Everything | Online shopping fraud: from a buyer or seller’s point of view | StaySafeOnline.org | 419 by Will Ferguson | YouTube Chain Letter Promising Kids Magic iPads