Not that long ago it was a common occurrence for scammers to telephone unsuspecting householders to tell them their computer was experiencing problems. Yeah, right! I took a few such calls and swiftly hung up on the con artists. But as detailed in 2012, a friend of mine fell for it; she ended up supplying passwords and credit card details to the fraudster.
I'm not sure if this particular computer scam is as prevalent now but my guess would be that it's on the decline as it becomes more widely known and as users become more tech savvy.
It's also likely that the proliferation of smartphones mean old-style computers are no longer a staple household item. Residential landlines are slowly going the way of the moa, too.
But don't think for a moment that those international scammers are putting their feet up and having a lovely holiday with their ill-gotten gains.
They've been hard at work devising fresh ways of extorting money.
And this time the mechanism is via an old-fashioned mail-out to letterboxes. It's quaint. It's retro. It couldn't possibly be sinister. Right? Wrong.
Last week I encountered a friend (not the one mentioned above) deeply contemplating a glossy colour travel brochure. "It kind of looks authentic. There's a local address," she said. My initial impression was that the brochure contained an enticing offer for a cruise or a trip. As it turned out, the brochure wasn't the point at all.
Then she showed me a scratch card which revealed "winnings" of over US$100,000. I didn't know (and still do not) why two such cards would accompany a travel brochure. In hindsight, I guess that was an early warning sign.
"What did you win on the other card?" I asked. "Nothing," she replied. "That's clever," I said. I noticed there was space for a name and address to be written (presumably for the purposes of redeeming the cash) on the card.
"Hmmm, that's one way to build a database," I mused (prior to realising they had been sent through the mail). Obviously I sensed an ulterior motive and understood that every recipient was a "winner" but the full scope of the scam eluded me.
"Just do a Google search," I suggested. "You won't be the first person to wonder about this so all the information will be online somewhere." I had to race off to an appointment otherwise I'd have performed the search myself.
Anyway, we both ended up looking online and, sure enough, it's a bona fide scam that is doing the rounds of Auckland and beyond. The short story is that when you attempt to claim your "prize", you're requested to first transfer a few thousand dollars to cover "taxes" or administrative costs.
• Travel brochure scams identified by scamdetector.com
You will never guess what happens next. They don't send you the prize money. I know. Not fair. Bet you didn't see that coming.
The details of this scheme are actually quite clever. We're all a bit jaded by telephone scams and online scams so it's kind of interesting that they're coming through the regular mail now.
The presence of a colour brochure also enhances the credibility of the offering. Furthermore, your "winnings" typically constitute "second prize". Surely a scammer would try to hook you with the temptation of first prize so .... maybe it's real. These little touches are designed to get our minds ticking over and help us justify taking it further.
Then, by many accounts, once you make contact with the organisation, you're advised that this winning card was sent in error but, because they are a company with a fine reputation, they will nonetheless honour this prize. Phew!
This layer of complexity is designed to make you feel grateful and think how nice they are so you're less suspicious when they ask for money. It's hoped the victim's rationale will be along the lines of: "Well, this isn't exactly a straightforward transaction and they are bending the rules a little for me. The least I can do is be cooperative."
Perhaps the smartest touch is for the scammers to ask would-be winners to sign a confidentiality agreement. Some victims could interpret this as another indicator of potential authenticity but, most importantly, this keeps the target person isolated from people who could identify that it's a scam.
As soon as you articulate this offering to someone else alarm bells are likely to sound but while it rests unchallenged inside your own head the perpetrators have way more chance of successfully scamming you.
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