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COVID-19 unleashes a ‘scamdemic’

MBONGENI MGUNI
The art of the con: Social media has provided a dream platform for scammers
As if the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic  and the economic recession were not enough, the virus has unleashed an unprecedented outbreak of scams on the already suffering consumer. Riding on the popularity of social media, scammers are preying on desperation, ignorance and greed, writes Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI

In years gone by, the garden variety con artist would pounce on their victim in the streets, convince them of some ‘miracle’ or magical financial solution and make off with their hard earned cash. From those claiming to double your money, sell you precious stones or get you a job, the scam relied on physical interface between the con artist and his victim.

The rapid spread of the Internet and social media has considerably reduced the scammers’ legwork. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened this, depressing incomes and thus creating fertile ground for those claiming to offer miracle relief for consumers. The pandemic’s lockdowns limited physical interface and as Batswana ‘went digital’ for their financial transactions and solutions, the scammers pursued, helped by the near lawlessness of the internet and the near helplessness of regulators.

The scams have ridden on the ‘word of mouth’ advertising built into the structure of social media, where friends and family members unwittingly spread the miracle claims, worsening the impact of the con. From WhatsApp gifting, to the Orange Money scam where victims receive phone calls designed to trick them into transferring their funds, COVID-19 has prepared a table where scammers are feasting on victims.

Borders aren’t an issue, as a colleague recently discovered when friends in the region shared a website offering COVID-19 ‘grants’ of up to P17,000. All one had to do was click the link and share to 20 contacts. Those who did found that they were asked to share far more than 20; in fact an endless number and it would appear the website was simply harvesting contacts and their information. The major financial institutions have all issued warnings on scams this year, with the largest bank, First National Bank Botswana (FNBB) inserting a ‘Latest Scams’ feature on its website specifically to warn consumers. Orange Money, at about 752,000 subscribers as at March 2019, is by far the biggest mobile money service and scammers are having a field day calling potential victims with all manner of tricks. The mobile group this week warned its customers not to fall prey. “Most people are just distrusting of digital, with good reason, but we are compelled to migrate,” the colleague who was offered the regional ‘grant’ says.

“Migration cannot be avoided. In fact, I must say, my mother also called soon after tagging her on that scam, which was very unfortunate as I could not undo the tagging.

“At 62 she had the smarts to call first and say it ‘was not genuine’ before she opened whereas I had already fallen into the trap after a well-meaning friend forwarded it as one of the many grant options.  “I didn’t even look at it first, just went straight into the message’s link, followed instructions only to realise along the way that I fell into the trap.  “And I am supposed to know better! Was very proud of my Mum than embarrassed at myself that day.” The regional or borderless aspect of COVID-19 scams is underlined by Brenda Zulu, executive director of Zambian Bloggers Network.

“As people move to digital spaces the criminals have also moved online and this can be seen by increased reports in mobile money crimes and ATM fraud,” she says. “In this digital era that has come early due to COVID-19 cyber criminals have also moved to online spaces. “Protect the privacy of your communication and that of others.

“The media should cover and publish such stories for the public to learn from others on online safety for scams.” The Consumer Watchdog’s Richard Harriman has long fought against scammers, particularly the online variety, exposing several scams coming into Botswana or developed on home soil.

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“There is a clear correlation between crises like COVID[-19] and scams,” he says. “Scammers are always looking for people who are either desperate or just trying to make some money on the side.

“COVID[-19] has provided them with even more people than usual and we’ve seen a definite increase in the number of scams operating.”

According to Harriman, there are some simple rules to detect whether an opportunity is a scam or not. “The best thing people can do is to remember this simple lesson. Anyone who invites you to join their money-making scheme is trying to make money FROM you, not WITH you. YOU are the product they’re exploiting to make money.

“Look for amazing claims. Schemes that offer returns much better than a commercial bank would offer are almost certainly scams.

“Always ask yourself what’s in it for the person encouraging you to join.  “Why don’t they just make money for themselves rather than pester other people to join?”

Harriman’s Consumer Watchdog Facebook page at 145,000 members is one of the largest in the country, and a key online platform for exposing scams. Yesterday morning, at the time of writing this article, one user alerted others that he had received a phone call from someone claiming they had mistakenly put the user’s cellphone number in an online registration. Further investigations by the user revealed that the caller was actually attempting to reset the user’s mobile banking app PIN, which would have granted the scammer access to the user’s bank account.

For FNBB financial crime risk analyst, Lesego Kgalemang, the scams brought on by COVID-19 extend beyond the financial sector and also include telephone and SMS fraud schemes, supply and procurement scams and decontamination scams.  Even the proliferation of fake sanitisers, masks and other counterfeit healthcare and sanitary products is part of the onslaught scammers are wreaking on consumers. “This behaviour by criminals is unacceptable given that such activities are threatening human lives and risk deteriorating the public health crisis,” he says. “It is imperative that law enforcement deters and detects such criminal activity and reinforces the fight against these crimes.” One of the key instruments against scams is the Consumer Protection Act of 2018, which provides for fines of up to P100,000 and/or five years in jail for various scams. Even joining a pyramid scheme could result in heavy penalties.

The Competition and Consumer Authority is the lead agency in enforcing the Act. “We have noted an upsurge in scams and we are heightening our public education,” the authority’s spokesperson, Gideon Nkala says.

“One way to avoid these is to adopt the old school values of taking care of your transactions. Do your due diligence and find out about the firm you are doing business with.  “There’s no limit to being careful. Be extra-cautious when you go online and watch out for red flags.” For Harriman, who has fought scams in their various incarnations for almost 20 years, one solution to pushing back against con artists is by using the same tool they are using; social media. “Our problem is that we have a national history of falling for scams.

“Eurextrade took millions from people a few years ago and many of us have failed to learn the lesson from that and other scams.

“The good news is that while scammers use the internet and social media in particular to recruit victims, we can use the same tools to fight against the scammers.  “I’m seeing more and more scepticism among people online and that’s a great step forward.  “If we can all help to educate our less sceptical friends and relatives, maybe we can win the fight against these scammers!”



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