Cyber crime: Scam, bam, thank you ma’am

Updated September 06, 2014

Email

Almost every day, inboxes are inundated with junk or spam mail offering discounts on Viagra to advertisements of ‘enlargement’ pills, supplements to beef up your body to all sorts of offers and what not. But how many times has anyone actually responded to such emails?

There’s one particular kind of email that lands in your inbox, addresses you by your full name, contains a long, emotional, catchy story and end up offering you a hefty amount if you help the sender (who’s almost always in trouble) withdraw a few million dollars stuck somewhere. The sender will mention his name, address, phone number and maybe bank details also just to make it all sound legit. Only that it is not. It’s a scam inspired by the decades old Nigerian letter scam.


Ever wonder what would happen if you replied to one of those con-artist emails? Well, Sheharyar Rizwan did and this is what followed.


The Nigerian letter scam is popularly known as the 419 scam, named after the formerly relevant section of the Nigerian Criminal Code. A letter mailed from Nigeria would offer its recipient a certain amount (usually millions of dollars) that the ‘scammer’ — posing as a government official — is trying to move out of Nigeria illegally. The ‘chosen one’ is asked to send some information to the sender, such as a blank letterhead, bank name and account number, and other identity proof through a fax number provided in that letter. In reality, there are no millions of dollars. The recipient is asked to send money in installments under various heads in the assurance that it’ll all be returned. And if caught in the web the victim ends up losing all the money sent.

Some victims have even been lured to Nigeria, where they faced imprisonment along with losing large sums of money. The Nigerian government is not sympathetic to the victims since the victim actually conspires to move out funds from Nigeria illegally. Today, the modernised version of this scam is one where the potential victims receive emails as the scammers operate globally and the sender/receiver can be sitting anywhere in the world (though the ‘home office’ will be Nigeria).

As fate would have it, yours truly received one of these emails one fine day. “Exclusively for you” said the subject. The email was short and sweet and to the point. The sender started off by introducing himself as ‘Abdul Rehman’ and then said he had a “deal” that he needed my “assistance to carry out”. He was apparently a ‘banker’ and worked for some ‘CIMB BANK’. Up till now I had no clue where this was coming from and, quite ashamedly, I didn’t even know about this popular scam and I thought this was someone in Pakistan. So, the naïve, gullible me asked my father about this bank since he’s a retired banker. He had no clue, and why would he? There was no such bank here.


An official of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Lahore revealed there were no laws to contain such scams or locate or apprehend scammers if someone’s fallen in their trap.


Mr ‘Rehman’ went on to explain that one of their customers had died and there were $5.3 milliom in his account. “I want to present you to my bank as the relative to our late customer to claim his fund in our custody and we will share it as business partners,” was his master plan. He concluded by saying he hoped to hear back from me soon so he could get into the details. More than anything else, this really amused me. My innocent reply was, “Are you for real?” because I admit I did not expect a real person to send such a mail.

To my utter shock, I got a response after three days. Instead of answering my question Mr Rehman wanted me to know that “this is a divine arrangement for us for the year 2014”. Using probably the most convincing words he could, he tried to assure me everything about “this business” was going to be done “under full legal arrangement that will protect us both locally and internationally” and we could also negotiate our respective shares “that will be satisfactory to both parties”. He wanted my “honest cooperation” and my “ability to follow all my instructions” so the fund could be transferred into my account and “all the necessary paperwork that will fully back the fund in your name will be fully provided”.

I was requested to send him my full name, contact details, address, profession and telephone, mobile and fax numbers. My scammer then gave me his phone number to call him directly “so that we can proceed immediately”. Reminding me that the amount involved was $5.3m and “to prove you can handle this business” he asked me again to call him. This time, the email ended with some weird name, “Abdulli Hahma”, followed by an address in Malaysia.

I wondered if I should look up the bank he mentioned and call them or the Malaysian police about this email. I decided against both. I sent him a reply asking where he got my email address from and why he thought I’d want to be a part of this. I also told him to look for someone else for this crime in his country, as I wasn’t in Malaysia.

The very next day he responded and for some very strange reason thanked me for my “willingness to proceed on this business”. What willingness? He wanted me to call him on the number he had earlier mentioned so he could “formally introduce you to the financial expert who is going to do the documentation of the fund in your name before you open communication with the bank for the wire”. This had now turned funny yet irritating. He then wanted me to know he was “entrusting so much into your care so I need your reliability and capability to do this business without any delay”, and asked me to call him right away “without excuses as we cannot afford to do this business by simply email”. Excuse me? Was I obligated? How dare he instruct me like that? I decided not to respond.


There’s one particular kind of email that lands in your inbox, addresses you by your full name, contains a long, emotional, catchy story and end up offering you a hefty amount if you help the sender (who’s almost always in trouble) withdraw a few million dollars stuck somewhere. The sender will mention his name, address, phone number and maybe bank details also just to make it all sound legit. Only that it is not. It’s a scam inspired by the decades old Nigerian letter scam.


Another email from him after two days shocked me. The guy had expressed annoyance over “the way you are dealing this process”. I laughed out loud! In what seemed like a direction, ‘Mr Abdulli Hahma’ told me to “to open communication directly with the financial expert as already advised and if you know you cannot proceed give me a phone call today instead of delaying”. Highly amusing! He further asked me to follow the advice of the “financial expert” and keep him posted; ending the email again with his name and all contact details.

Bored with ‘Abdulli Hahma’ by now, I tried to tell him off in a subtle way. I told him he couldn’t direct me like that and should go find someone else for his scam and not email me again. (Today I laugh at my gullibility.)

Two weeks later, that man addressed me in his email for the first time and audaciously asked: “What is going on? If you are serious with this business, I need you to call me today so that we can proceed instead of giving excuses on the email.” Had I not made myself very clear I didn’t want to be a part of this “business”. And “excuses”? He wasn’t my friend/girlfriend whom I had ditched and was making excuses for. But that was the last I heard from him, and don’t expect to again either.

Local versions of such scams remind me of SMSs, including the cheesy ‘Asma’ distress message wherein this damsel in distress keeps asking for balance on her number. Then there is the Benazir Income Support Programme SMS wherein the receiver is apparently selected for the Rs25,000 cash award.

An official of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Lahore revealed there were no laws to contain such scams or locate or apprehend scammers if someone’s fallen in their trap.

“There was the Prevention and Control of Electronic Crime Ordinance in 2009, but it lapsed in 2010 and was never re-promulgated. It was used against electronic fraud and forgery,” said Naseem Masood, FIA Cyber Crimes Prosecutor, who has jurisdiction all over Punjab except the Rawalpindi division. He added if someone approached them with a cyber crime case, they guide the aggrieved, conduct an inquiry and then refer the case to the police as the FIA did not have relevant laws to handle such cases.

“The police tackle such cases under Section 420 of the Pakistan Penal Code that applies to cheating. If a scammer is abroad, we tell the aggrieved to contact the interior ministry, who will approach Interpol,” Masood explained.

Earlier, the FIA would take up cyber crime cases under sections 36 and 37 of the Electronic Transactions Ordinance 2002. A few years ago, the Islamabad High Court ruled that Section 420 (cheating) of the PPC was the right law to treat the crime under, and that authority rested with the police. There’s a new law against cyber crime that was tabled in June this year but has been with the president since then with no progress, he added.

“Police have also arrested quite a few scammers. And to help people avoid such traps, the PTA initiated various campaigns, ran advertisements on and off, told people not to respond to suspicious emails which created awareness and controlled the number of cyber crimes cases,” Masood said. I suppose I’ll just have to make my millions the hard way.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 7th, 2014