In the past few days, I have been receiving several messages telling me that my cell number is a 2016 bonus winner and that I should claim my R9,500 bonus. Winning a competition is the best feeling ever but the problem here is that I did not enter a competition, so how could I win something I haven't entered?
An old man I know was sent an SMS saying he had won R500,000 and should contact a certain person on a specified cellphone number. He was excited and asked me to help him contact the person to claim his riches. He wasn't pleased when I told him it was a scam and that the people who had sent him the message were actually trying to steal his money.
As the festive season kicks into high gear and people enter competitions for warm, fuzzy pressies, scammers are also on the prowl looking for the gullible and sometimes the most careful. Scammers have become more bold and daring.
I had a conversation with a security expert who made me promise not to reveal his identity in exchange for information on the intricacies of 419 and online scams. This is what I learned:
1. Try not to be caught off your guard.
Most electronic scams rely on catching you off guard, either by scaring you, appealing to your sympathy or trying to entice you. Be wary of any unsolicited communication.
2. Hone a healthy sense of scepticism.
The internet is not a safe place. Ask yourself: "Is it too good to be true? Why is this charity organisation e-mailing me directly? Why would my bank contact me about secure personal details?" There is absolutely no shame in asking questions if you are unsure of something.
3. Try to identify the person behind the communication.
"If you receive communication, whether it is Facebook, SMS or e-mail, look at the origin of the message. Does the e-mail address seem strange? If it is an SMS from your bank, ask yourself 'Have they ever sent me messages from this number before?' It is possible to use a pseudonym of sorts when sending e-mails but interfaces like Gmail allow you to click on the option to 'Show original'. This will show you the actual e-mail address from which it was sent," says the scam expert.
You could try going online to look up the contact details for the supposed originator of the communication. Otherwise try more traditional ways to verify information, like picking up the telephone. A common Facebook scam is to clone a friend's profile, then contact you saying they are stranded somewhere and need money. You can verify the story by simply calling that person's family or friends and asking if they're alright.
4. Never open links.
While it might be enticing and exciting to see the many zeros that lie in wait for you, never open any links sent to you by an unfamiliar contact. "The absolute first thing one must do when receiving an electronic scam is not to click any button or link. These buttons and links will attempt to install malicious software [on your device] or subscribe you to various expensive mobile services," says the expert. If you're unsure about whether a communication is legitimate, contact the agency or institute the scammer is trying to imitate and ask about it, then simply delete the message.
5. Don't try to track the scammer down yourself.
Although you could try to track the scammer down Sherlock Holmes-style, it could be dangerous. If you desperately want to catch the scammer, you can contact law enforcement agencies and work with them to bring down the scammer.
People who are willing to stick out their necks to catch scammers are called "scambaiters" and often work with law enforcement to help victims and to educate people.
"A scambaiter will use many of the scammers' own tools and tricks against them, often tying up much of the scammers' time stopping them from engaging with potential victims. It is not without risk, so scambaiters tend to follow some strict rules. A common misconception is that electronic scammers are low-level, casual criminals or desperate people looking to buy a meal; this fits only about 1 percent of scammers. The rest are involved in globally reaching complex crime organisations, and so without a doubt I would highly suggest that the public do not engage scammers directly, especially from their personal e-mail or social media accounts. Report them and move on," says the expert.
6. Educate yourself.
"If people would like to know more about scambaiters and baiting, a very good place to start is 419eater.com. They also provide education and information on scams past and current," says the expert.
7. Remember, it's not just stupid or greedy people who get scammed.
The best way to protect yourself from scammers is to dismiss the idea that only stupid or greedy people get taken for a ride. All scam victims are just that, victims.
Hopefully these tips will help you to have a fabulous Christmas and a prosperous New Year free of scammers.