Extremely few scams end happily for the victim. The swindled German woman stayed in Nigeria to pursue the scammers in court. After 13 years of litigation and personal anguish (she was threatened at gunpoint by the criminals, disowned by her family, abandoned by her second husband for another woman) she settled out of court for less than what she originally lost.
Most victims don't even get that meager satisfaction: once hooked, they are strung along for as much money as the scammers can squeeze, then are abruptly dropped. There are stories of victims who were enticed to fly to Nigeria and then imprisoned on charges of not having visas. Some have been murdered.
All this potential grief reaches millions of internet users around the world each day. And it's not going to abate anytime soon. For scammers, email is cheap, convenient and has a wonderful return on investment. Send out a million emails a year, and if even a fraction of one per cent of that number gets a response, that's already thousands of mugu waiting to be harvested.
And the scam can take a thousand shapes: once, in London, several people received email congratulating them on winning free software. The email asked them to reply and say what time they'd be home so the prizes could be delivered. Briefed so elegantly on when the coast would be clear, the criminals broke into the houses. The trick is a variation of a ploy that used to be worked by telephone, but email made it possible for the charlatans to actually question the victims more closely, asking them what sort of equipment they had at home. This was ostensibly to see how "compatible" the hardware was with the alleged software; actually it gave the burglers an idea of what stuff to look for.
Another scam, the "hoax on your heart" is an insidious ploy that typically depicts the sender a victim asking for help. In its latest variant the scamster pretends to be someone collecting money for a man badly burned in a fire. It even comes complete with pictures.
Then there are all the email offers to make "easy honest $$money$$ really!!" It might tell you you've just won a lottery (forget it, you haven't); or it might invite you to invest in a soaring stock. Surprisingly, in this instance, the stock is real. But it's worthless -- unless of course, thousands of dupes such as yourself invest in it and send its value soaring, at which point the scamsters will unload the stocks they've bought, leaving you with nothing.
Perhaps the most perplexing point about email scams is how otherwise sane and shrewd people – hard-nosed businessmen, crafty executives – become easy victims. It's as if going online makes them lose common sense, and regard every story they're told to be true. Take a moment to consider the number of hoaxes and urban legends you've been forwarded by your friends. Apparently, the number of clueless surfers is legion: up to now the Nieman-Marcus recipe hoax is still being forwarded in Philippine newsgroups. It seems to verify the statement, mistakenly attributed to showman PT Barnum that “there's a sucker born every minute. And two to take 'em.”
It's actually easy to spot an e-scam. Any email (and lately, text message) that asks you to do something – give information, sign a document, join a contest, return a call – is a potential swindle. The scam rating goes up dramatically when the message asks for specific things such as names, dates, passwords, bank accounts, birthdays and schedules.
Many internet surfers don't seem to think twice about turning over their personal data. “Why should I worry?” they shrug. They should, for at the very least their names and addresses can be peddled to database compilers, at the worst somebody can use the data to craft a fake identity. And that chain letter you gleefully pass on to several other people? It's possible that when you add your email address, it will be harvested by 419 scammers who will then put you in their target list.
While there have been reassuring stories of Nigerian scammers who've been arrested and jailed, these are few and far between. The initiative continues to rest with the criminals.
The best tactic: don't believe anything you get on the email unless it's from your close friends, and even then, if they're merely forwarding a story, check it out. It's as easy as going to Google, typing the first sentence of the story they're sending you in quotation marks, and then adding any of the following words: "scam". "hoax", "fraud" or "urban legend."
To succeed, a scam needs two things: the victim's greed and gullibility. There are no statistics on scam victims in the Philippines, but given this culture's predisposition to believe in dancing suns, supernatural forces and apparitions, the potential mugu count must be significant.
As a matter of fact, there's a Philippine-made scam already taking shape. It involves the spurious, scientifically bogus claim that there is a vast amount of deuterium at the bottom of the Philippine Deep (short answer: there's none) and that the country can "mine" it, earn billions and become industrialized. The idea was concocted in the 1990s by a labor recruiter who asked overseas workers for "investments." Now his idea is being circulated online.
Disturbingly, it seems the Arroyo government and its department of science and technology accept the deuterium scam as true. Perhaps soon somebody will be describing it in form letters solicitng donations. Will it be titled "URGENT, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION"?