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OP-ED: Con in the time of corona

  • Published at 05:30 pm July 26th, 2020
masks covid

Even in the middle of a pandemic, people continue to be exploited

From the recent arrest of several people linked to the immoral trade of handing out false Covid-19 certificates, it becomes clear that the pandemic has come as a blessing for those who thrive in the world of con and vice. 

Just a few days ago, a large gang of Nigerians was busted by the law. At a press briefing, the CID revealed that the group, in connivance with a local woman, carried out the elaborate swindle, aimed at taking money from unsuspecting victims. 

While people suffer and die with a feeling of unease everywhere, the world of unethical trade rolls on without scruples, with double the vigour.  

Exploiting an emergency situation

Any emergency is a situation where the general people become a little vulnerable; if this weakness can be exploited, then swift profits can be made in a matter of weeks. As I write this piece, a firm belonging to a woman with reported political links has come under the spotlight for supplying low-quality N95 masks. 

Getting rich in the time of corona seems to be the driving mantra for many. One of my friends, known to be a little shady, called and asked: “Dost! Do you have any links to any departments of health? That is now the place to make a fast buck.”

Hearing that I had no connection, he added in an admonishing tone: “You are a born loser! Try to make some contacts and do whatever necessary!” 

To be honest, I have come across such interactions quite a few times and all of them were related to the supply of either masks, disinfectants, or gloves. Shockingly, in several of these interactions, the main focus was on making money while the actual objective of warding off corona was hardly the discussed issue -- with multifaceted con on the rise, the Nigerian gang was plying an age-old trick (trite actually), which had little to do with the pandemic. 

The trap of ‘online friends’

The TV report on the Nigerian con group mentioned that it convinced people into paying for gifts which had allegedly arrived from overseas and then used the local woman to pose as a customs officer demanding a gift releasing fee. 

What the reports did not mention was that the gang actually entrapped people through social media friendship sites.

In the espionage world, the procedure in which an attractive woman is used as a bait to lure an agent of the opposing side is termed a honey trap; in the conworld, the fake ID of a man or a woman, created to entice single or romantically-inclined people, is the virtual honey trap where the friendship is carried on for six months to a year to establish trust.  Once months of communication lead to romance, the first stage is crossed and the trap is laid. At this stage, with trust secured, the “gift” is mentioned. 

To relate the real-life experience of a woman who fell for this fraud: After six months, the relationship became so deep that the woman was willing to believe anything her online lover, pretending to be a Scotsman, was telling her. He wove a future in the Scottish highlands, in a castle with plenty of single malt and sensuous escapades. When the woman was head over heels, the “gift” arrived at the airport in Dhaka. 

Obviously, it contained a huge stash of pound sterling which the Scotsman needed to send to someone he trusted implicitly. The catch? Provide a few lakhs to have it released. The woman did exactly that and got the money selling her jewelry. Once she realized the swindle, it was too late; for her, too embarrassing to admit to the police. 

The woman had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized in the end. But there is something else -- she talked about her online love with several friends who warned her in no uncertain terms, which she disregarded. As Shakespeare said: “Love is madness and deserves a dark house and a whip just like madmen do.”

The ‘get rich quick’ mentality

Fraudsters of all kinds, from the small ones to the big-time con players, are criminals but there is no denying that to be conned, the temptation of the victim is essential. 

It’s our greed/desire to get that “gift” which makes us the victim. The “gift” might be anything, even promises of a life of roses and honey in the end.

Just one day ago, I got a message on my phone saying: “This number has just won half a million pounds.” I did not open it because the moment I saw the first lines, the inner instinct sent a warning. Or maybe, a grizzled journalist is cynical enough to know miracles never happen in this world. 

Naturally, some frauds are very complex, though the method used by the Nigerian gang is rather old and known to most. Yet, people fall victim because deep inside the human mind, there is an understanding that one can hit the jackpot by a single lucky strike. This gambler’s tendency within all of us needs to be curbed. 

As for friends, it’s always better to meet/assess them and not get carried away in the heat of the moment. To end with a quote plus warning from Shakespeare: “The sweetest honey is loathsome in its deliciousness and thereby destroys the appetite; therefore, love moderately, too fast is just as bad as too slow.” 

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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