Beware of evil beings in the cyberspace

Linda S. Heard
Linda S. Heard

Linda S. Heard

By : Linda S. Heard

Internet users are plagued by viruses, spam and government spying, which we know is happening thanks to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. But you may not be aware that there are gangs of cheats and blackmailers prepared to ruin your reputation, if not your life, for a whole lot more than a fistful of dollars.

Last week, I received a call from a panicked Egyptian neighbor at the end of his tether. Apparently, he had accepted a friend request on Facebook (FB) from someone purporting to be a Lebanese woman. The very same day, she sent him an obscene picture of himself, which had been morphed or Photoshopped. The upper half of his body was taken from a photograph he had taken on the beach during his summer vacation that he posted on FB. The rest was someone else’s.

The “woman” demanded EGP 200,000 else she threatened to send the photo to all his friends and family. I persuaded him to go to the police and he was directed to the department dealing with cyber crime and security issues. He was treated respectfully and was shown boxes of files relating to similar cases.

The police advised him to alert his FB friends not to friend anyone new for a while before canceling his page. He was also told not to open emails unless he knew for sure who the sender was. This is because the criminals often transmit fraudulent emails from the “police” or other government agencies, demanding fines under fake laws of the land in response to their demands being ignored. Unfortunately, the fraudsters usually get away with their crimes because most go unreported for obvious reasons — and even when they are, there is an absence of efficient international mechanisms.

My friend was informed that once a victim is hooked, he or she is permanently on the blackmailer’s payroll. Many initially pay-up, especially those who fear losing their job or their marriage. But then the demands keep on coming, until eventually they are forced to turn to the authorities. In some instances, women who’ve succumbed to a demand out of fear, who only inform their husbands when they run out of cash, have been divorced for deceit or because their spouse chooses to believe the worst. Some victims have resorted to suicide rather than face embarrassment.

I’ve since learned that this occurrence is very common. People around the world are targeted daily. The BBC’s “Click” program devoted a segment to this in which a spokesman for the French police explained that “this sort of crime is only possible because of the unique connectability, anonymity and intimacy-at-a-distance which the Internet affords. Unless the differences that separate international law enforcers are bridged as easily, we will continue with victims in one country, perpetrators in another — and with little that can be done about it.”

In this case, it is up to the individual to ensure that he or she is fully protected. The cure is to abstain from social media sites, webcams and chats but that is probably a pill too bitter, especially for those who take great pleasure in networking, sharing ideas and “meeting” new people. Alternatively, you can remove your personal photographs and videos from your pages, restrict your interactions to people you know in real life and, above all, reject any approaches from overly-friendly types attempting to drag your conversations into the personal arena.

There are numerous other Internet scams that disrupt the lives of the naïve, desperate or overly trusting. They include emails relating to lotteries and sweepstakes, money transfer, debt relief, get-rich-quick by working at home. Messages from a stranger who says he’s down on his luck or needs cash for an operation should be sent to the trash.

One of the most profitable is known as “the Nigerian Scam” claiming to come from wealthy officials or their widows eager to transfer millions to your account in order to get their money out of the country.

I actually know someone who fell for this, an English businessman called John. He flew to Abuja, was met off the plane and driven to a villa out of town. Some days later, he was taken to a fake bank and shown a transfer slip in the sum of many millions of dollars. Just when he thought he was set-up for life, he discovered there was a catch. Before the money would be transferred to his account, he was obliged to pay two percent in “government taxes.” He didn’t have that kind of money available. He told me he was disappointed that the transaction was unable to proceed at the time. His hosts turned nasty. But he was one of the lucky ones. He was driven to the airport; others have been kidnapped, beaten and even murdered.

One of the most devastating scams is the fake job offer. A young, newly married, cash-strapped couple I know fell for this just last year. He quit his secure employment, terminated his apartment rental and sold their furniture after being assured there was a job awaiting him in a Gulf country, provided he forwarded a relatively modest sum of money to pay for his ticket and employment visa, which he did. He’s now jobless, his wife has recently given birth and they’re living with a family member in a cramped flat. The message is clear. If an offer sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.



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