There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute

There are some who say that P.T. Barnum never uttered those famous words. Maybe someone borrowed his identity. But suckers are always rising and falling in America. And I just swiped that from Hawthorne.

Each year, Americans are forced to stomach everything from greasy inbox spam to slimy Nigerian bank fraud. The study of scams is a sort of hobby for me. It all started when I began working as an admin in a busy office. Believe it or not, the workplace is a ripe target for telemarketing fraud. You can’t sniff the putrid stench of scammers through your handset. You have to listen closely for lies and lures. Potential victims should think of themselves as border guards:  ask the right questions and you’ll catch them in the act.

Copier swindlers are notorious players in this billion-dollar game. They “represent” or impersonate your copier company and ask for the serial number from the copy machine. The end result is a torrent of toner shipments and a bill as long as your arm, with the follow-up claim that you requested all that junk. A more sociable version of these vipers offers “high-yield”, “extended life”, and “refurbished” cartridges for almost any printer. They may have generic names like American Computer Industries, the name of an actual company investigated by the Federal Trade Commission in 2005. Sign up for a free trial and they’ll unleash the same flood of shipments and bills. Getting into an argument over unpaid bills and unwanted supplies will yield nothing but migraines.

I’ve had many calls from such swindlers in three different jobs. My brain goes on tactical alert when the offer sounds too good to be true. On my first phone encounter, my experience as a journalist kicked in and I started to ask some basic questions:

Question:  “I’d like to check you guys out before I agree to anything. Do you have a website?”

Answer:  “We don’t have a website.”

Question:  “Seriously?”

Answer:  “Well, we’re sort of a third-party supplier.”

Question:  “Why don’t you have a website? This is the 21st Century. Dairy Queen has a website!”

I didn’t expect Google to shed any light on these miscreants, but checking their phone number did place them in a nondescript warehouse in California. Checking their name and number with the local Better Business Bureau revealed a list of consumer complaints that were resolved or left wide open. They were also mentioned in a Federal Trade Commission report that recommended legal action, some of which resulted in the freezing of fake-toner assets. Was it overkill on my part? Perhaps it was. But reading the complaints of actual victims and the comments from actual authorities helped me learn a great deal about telemarketing fraud. And I was certainly ready for them in the future.

In an age of rapid-fire data, this sort of fraud has dripped into other realms of communication. You get the usual spam in the shape of authentic emails and postal mail. Some schemers are starting to ply their trade in Facebook. Trashing or deleting is easy for the physical stuff. For a bogus caller, the best response has always been, “Don’t call here ever again.” And of course, keep a record of fishy callers to prepare for your next encounter.

A recent facsimile brought me back down memory lane:  the Bank of Nigeria scam. The fax I received this morning denies the usual requirements of the Nigerian scoundrels, and is bereft of punctuation, but offers just as much fun:

Sir,

I am Mrs. Ruby Addo Mills the second wife of late Ghanaian President who died on the 24th of July 2012. I’m contacting you in view of the fact that we may be of great assistance to each other. Likewise developing a cordial business relationship. I currently inherited the sum of ninety-five million US dollars ($95,000,000.00) which I intend to use for investment purposes specifically in your country.

Please note:  We are not going to ask you to send your account details to us until we meet face-to-face in the bank’s vault in any of these three countries of your choice:  Madrid Spain, Johannesburg South Africa or Kampala Uganda.

For security reasons I want all of our communications to go through my son. I want you to send to my son the details to enable me contact you for more details, I will explain more to you in my next detailed fax to you.

Your name in full, contact telephones and fax numbers.

Best regards,

Mrs. Ruby Addo Mills

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