I’m sure many of you have received an unsolicited phone call asking about that alleged car crash you were supposedly involved in (or Microsoft (allegedly) telling you you’ve got a bug on your PC that needs fixing) or an email from someone asking you to deposit a large sum of money into your account – or a message purporting to be from your bank, HMRC or Netflix – with numerous spelling and punctuation mistakes, upper and lower case letters in the wrong places, and in some cases written in the wrong language – asking you to change your log-in password.
I once even received an email in Irish asking me to take care of a large sum of money which was to be deposited into my account. The level of grammar was appalling though and it had quite clearly been written with the unreliable help of Google Translate.
Then there was the email from “Amzon Prim” (sic) email advising me that I needed to update my account otherwise it would be blocked “forever” – and they very helpfully sent me a link to click on. But I was baffled as to why someone from a huge multi-national tech giant would be using a Gmail account to send out customer emails. By the way I didn’t click on the link.
Over the past year I must have received about two dozen phone calls where the caller wanted to know about my “accident”. One on occasion the caller introduced himself as “John Taylor” from the so-called “Road Traffic Compensation Bureau”, but spoke with quite a strong Indian accent. I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t the same John Taylor as the former MP who now styles himself as Lord Kilclooney. I’m also sure that the caller was unaware of the irony, given his namesake’s history of politically incorrect remarks on social media about people of Asian origin.
I had this “Mr Taylor” on the phone for about ten minutes during which I gave lurid details of the alleged car crash.
He asked me if I’d received any compensation. I said I’d applied for it, but was turned down. When he asked me why, I explained (with tongue firmly in cheek) that it was because the solicitors I was dealing with weren’t real solicitors but were in fact scammers from a call centre who’d try to swindle me out of a large sum of money. At this point I expected him to catch on and hang up on me. But surprisingly he continued with his spiel – which I’m sure was well scripted.
He then asked me my name.
“Do you want my name?” I asked just to make sure I’d understood him correctly.
“Is it my name you want?” I repeated just to be doubly sure.
“YES!” he responded, now sounding a little impatient.
“So you want my name then?”
“YES!!!!” came Mr Taylor’s response, this time even more impatient, and now a little agitated.
I explained that as I had quite an unusual name, I would spell it out for him. But then instead of giving out my real name I spelt out a very rude word. Very slowly of course.
There was a brief pause, after which “John Taylor” in an angry voice invited me to do something physically impossible to myself. Not surprisingly he then hung up.
Now some of you out there may be thinking “yer man’s got a bit too much time on his hands” – but you can’t beat the satisfaction of winding up the scammers and hearing them lose the rag after they’ve finally twigged that you’ve just taken them for a ride and wasted several minutes of their time. In any case now that so many of us are working from home these days and missing out on the office banter and the Christmas parties, and can’t go to the pub, small distractions like this are often welcome!
It would probably be an exaggeration and come across as somewhat self-righteous to say that we have a civic duty to waste as much of these people’s time as possible to stop them from trying to scam others. So I won’t say it!
However, the sad fact is that many vulnerable people have lost large sums of money after having fallen victim to such instances of fraud, as documented in a recent BBC Panorama episode. Rarely are the perpetrators brought to justice, mainly because they usually operate in a different jurisdiction to where their targets are located. But this recent news story from the USA where a con artist received a lengthy jail sentence and was ordered to $8.97m back to his victims proves that scams don’t always pay.
Scammers and con artists have been around since time immemorial. And they’ll be around for a long time yet. But as technology advances the methods change.
In the early days of the internet when it was like a virtual Wild West the art of scam-baiting was a minor niche pastime practiced almost exclusively by a small group of tech-savvy people. Now it’s become a profitable industry providing a wealth of opportunity for those with skills in related areas such as cybersecurity and data protection. There are numerous videos on Youtube (other multi-media apps are available) which show scammers being humiliated over the phone by experienced baiters. In some cases the tables are turned when the intended victims make victims out of their would-be scammers by logging remotely onto their IT systems and deleting all their files.
The BBC Panorama episode as referred to above even documented an impressive feat where a prominent Northern Irish scambaiter who uses the pseudonym “Jim Browning” was able to log into the CCTV camera system of a call centre responsible for serial scamming activities and actually see the people he was talking to.
There’s no denying in this case that these online vigilantes are providing a valuable service to society.
It’s at commercially opportunistic times of the year like Christmas, as well as in times of crisis (and therefore opportunity) – for example like the Covid pandemic or Brexit – when scammers are at their most active. I know it’s a cliché to say this, but if something sounds too good to be true it almost certainly isn’t true!
Stay safe and be alert.
Ciaran Ward is from Co. Tyrone and is now based in London where he works in the data protection/cybersecurity field. His latest book “On Square Routes”, a collection of memoirs, travel writing, short stories and poetry has just been published and is now available from Amazon.