My Friend’s Encounter with a Con
November 17, 2008, 12:00 pm
Filed under: Economics, Poverty | Tags: ,

craigslistThe Internet provides us ample opportunity and a myriad of channels though which we can communicate with friends and family, find local events and volunteer opportunities, organize meetings, stream our favorite shows, listen to NPR, learn a new language, explore a new place, share gift ideas and purchase almost anything our hearts desire. More importantly, the internet offers us a great degree of anonymity, an attendant consequence of which being the ability to develop alternate personalities and interact with the global community in whatever shape of form we so choose. Unfortunately, in the realm of e-commerce, the lack of structure and the fluidity of the net also makes it easier to cheat, steal, embezzle and destroy lives.

My friend recently received a new iPod Touch as a gift from her brother. Content with an older yet till operational model she already had, and looking ahead to purchasing a new camera in order to develop and expand her new-found affinity for photography, she decided to put her gift on the popular Craigslist site. The following is one variant of the myriad of questionable solicitation she received. To do justice to absurdity, all errors have been kept in tact.


I am very glad to hear back from you. I am a University Senior lecturer residing in brooklyn ,N.Y. I came across this ad on Craigslist and thinking of my Son’s Birthday coming up, I would love to get an awesome present for him, which he really wants, he was currently transferred from Us to West Africa with his team on a research on Human development under world Health Organization.I’ll be paying you through Paypal,it’s secure and protects two parties in a transaction. I will forward my son’s residential address to you for shipping as soon as the payment reaches you. Please kindly get back to me ASAP,so that i can make the payment there.

NB: I will be paying you $520 for item and i will include $ 130 to cover up the cost price for the shipping fee. Get back to me with your paypal email asap.


Most people, and luckily my friend included, can see the obvious scam being perpetrated. However, this is a multibillion-dollar industry precisely because unwitting victims do not take precautions to protect their identity nor their pocketbook. While it is often a good idea to avoid absolutes and do away with broad-brush strokes, most of these Internet scams originate from West Africa, and more specifically, Nigeria (most of the available literature focuses on Nigeria as being fons et origo of such perfidiousness, but I’d like to note that I recently received a solicitation from Bolivia.) The scam above seems obvious because the buyer is willing to pay far more than the price of the item. The Internet is replete with criminals patiently waiting for any opportunity to steal your information. In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to selling fake/stolen credit card numbers.=

However, it should be made clear that financial identity fraud can be fought from both directions. Just as the onus is on consumers/buyers to protect his/her personal information, it is equally as important for retailers/sellers to be vigilant against this sort of fraud. For one, most retailers will not ship internationally. For example, if I was staying in Ghana and wanted to buy a new computer so that I could blog for The Melon, Apple would not complete my transaction. They would refuse to ship to Ghana.

Here’s how criminals get around these restrictions, and notice how the gentleman who wrote my friend uses a variant of this technique to get his paws on this iPod, which he ultimately fails to do. Let’s say now that I am in Lagos, Nigeria and I have possession of a fake credit card. Impressed with the clothing on the newly formed Melon Store, and knowing how much my children want to wear The North Face gear, I use the credit card to make purchase orders. Now, as a precaution against fraud, The North Face store will not ship a pair of gloves to Lagos. What to do?

Find an unsuspecting American to send it to me, of course. Here is where it gets even more sinister. If I want to be successful in my criminality, I need to find a lonely yet hopeless romantic, preferably through a chat site. (With the explosion of social networking sites, the opportunities here are endless.) Let’s say that I meet a very nice middle-aged woman named Kathy who lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. Kathy is lonely and more generally, a very trusting person. I meet her online, and with the fake persona that I have created, I write sweet nothings to her on a daily basis. As our relationship develops, I even promise to marry Kathy eventually.

Essentially, I get it to the point where Kathy is willingly yet unknowingly being used as a pawn in my scheme.  After a short courtship in which I get her in my snare, I start to make purchases and have them shipped to Lincoln. Once there, Kathy then uses her own funds to send the clothing to Lagos and of course, given that I have wooed her with promises of marriage, she pays for it out of pocket, trusting my good word and the elaborate, ridiculous and constantly changing metanarrative I give her.

My aberrant behavior aside, I end up with the gear, my children are ecstatic about getting stylish clothing, Kathy is no less lonely then she was but has now spent thousands of dollars she does not have in the hopes of finding love and the poor person whose identity and credit card was stolen pays the ultimate price. It happens daily, even hourly and it is not just the elderly or the rationally comatose that fall victim to this. We are all either victims or potential victims. The only amulet against greed is common sense and even that only goes so far.