By Raffique Shah
March 16, 2014
I suppose I should not have been surprised at the number of people who telephoned the Central Bank, or turned up at its offices, to claim the “winnings” they had been alerted to via the now ubiquitous cellphone text messages.
Still, I could not believe there were so many gullible people in a country that boasts of a 90-plus per cent literacy rate, of universal free secondary education and easily accessible tertiary education. Maybe I am a fool for equating education with common sense, for believing that the average person can easily spot a scam and not fall victim to the boundless wiles of cartels of conmen who trawl the shrunken world of electronic communications searching for and fleecing fools.
The Internet has long been a hunting ground for these predators. From way back when, every so often I would receive unsolicited e-mails informing me that I had won massive sums of money—Euro or US dollars, for sure—in “lottos” or other games of chance I knew nothing about, and which I most definitely had not participated in.
So if I had not bought a ticket, how and why would I win a prize, especially something in the seven or eight-digit range? Really, with my luck being what it is, I knew all along that I would have to work for whatever I wanted in life, that there would be no free lunch or free money.
Let me explain my blight. When I was a boy, someone passed in at our home selling raffle tickets that sought to raise money for some charity, and my generous mother duly parted with one shilling—having me select the ticket. The first prize was a sewing machine. When the raffle was drawn, mine was one number shy of the winner’s!
You would think that it could only get better for me. Wrong. I used to buy one lottery ticket from a pensioner, really to help him, but also with the outside hope that maybe I would win a prize. I allowed him to select the ticket, riding his luck in a manner of speaking.
One day, he passed in at the office to sell me the weekly ticket, but I was unusually late, so he offered what would have been my ticket to my colleagues, two of whom bought half each. That ticket won the first prize—$500,000 in those days.
I was happy for my colleagues. Like me, they were of ordinary means and deserved some luck in life, and I felt that somewhere along the line, the wheels of fortune might favour me.
When the Lotto started, well aware that the chances of winning were close to one in a million, I still bought two tickets for the weekly draw. Later, I bought one ticket occasionally, and eventually I stopped playing and paying what many dub the “fools” tax’. Other than a handful of very lucky persons, the only winner in the Lotto or any game of chance is the organiser, in our case the Lotteries Board.
Now, with that kind of born-to-lose background, why would Central Bank Governor Jwala Rambarran or any of his staff award me $50,000? They would have to be mad, and I madder, to think I earned or deserved it.
Yet, scores of persons who received patently bogus text messages advising them of their incredible ‘luck’, all but laid siege to the bank demanding their bounties. That so many people were conned by some hustlers, pirates in far-off Somalia skimming money from gullible Trinis, means that our reputation as fools has spread across the world.
With Trinidad and Tobago having a mobile penetration rate of one-point-five (more cellphones than people), and with these devices linked wirelessly to the world, we can expect more people to fall victims to scams. Matters not how much you warn people about the perils of the global communications jungle, there will always be gullible and greedy people who walk into these traps with their eyes wide open.
You would think mostly poor, semi-literate people will bite such bait as they desperately seek to climb out of poverty. Again, wrong. Greed is an across the board affliction. I know of well-off and wealthy people who have lost sizeable sums to hedge funds bandits like Allen Stanford who lured them with promises of unrealistic returns on investments.
But scammers do not need to be as seductive or sophisticated as Stanford. A long-time but clearly rewarding scam is the poorly written e-mails, purportedly from a prince or princess or relative of a dead dictator, usually from Africa, who has inherited huge sums and needs your complicity to access the loot.
They advise that you will get a hefty commission if you help them “liberate” the money. The only requirements are your banking details and a small outlay.
Would you believe some people still fall for this crap, losing substantial sums chasing crooked shadows?
Greed and gullibility are a deadly concoction. There is a global industry of tech-predators armed with cellphones and computers, preying on foolish people. And they thrive, thanks to greed and stupidity.