There are a few obvious lessons to be learnt here about protecting yourself against identity theft – don’t lose your laptop, be careful what sensitive data your store on your hard disk, back up your address book, etc. but the most important defence against these crimes is even more straightforward – use your brain!
I got an email the other day from Phil – an old mate of mine, and a fellow priest from a neighbouring parish. Apparently he was in Lagos, Nigeria! What on earth was he doing in Lagos – the scam and identity theft capital of the world? Hmm … so he needs me to send him some money!
I get dozens of emails like this every day from Lagos – pastors in need of funds for their orphanages alongside magnificent offers of millions of US dollars left to me by recently-deceased oil tycoons, all of whom somehow came to base themselves in Lagos! Normally I just toss these emails away without looking at them, but this one was different – it was from a friend (or at least it seemed to be).
It was definitely from Phil’s email address and the author definitely identified himself as Phil. Moreover, he offered a plausible explanation as to what he was doing in Lagos. He was there for an AIDS conference – helping to coordinate the efforts of the worldwide church to combat the scourge of AIDS in Africa. This sounded exactly like something Phil might involve himself with. What sounded less plausible was the story that followed.
Phil had apparently been mugged and had lost his wallet, his passport, and all his essential travel documents. As a result, he said, he couldn’t pay the hotel bill, and was being held captive by the hotel management, pending the payment of the bill!
Now, I don’t know how they do business in Lagos, but it didn’t sound remotely likely to me that any hotel would treat an international visitor this way, least of all a visitor of Phil’s standing. Moreover, if he was having trouble with the local hotel staff, why hadn’t he contacted the Australian embassy and received assistance from them, and, for that matter, why would he choose me as the person to help him? We were old friends, for sure, but I imagine that, if I were caught in such circumstances, I would sooner contact members of my family rather than the priest of a neighbouring parish!
I didn’t quiz him with this final question, but did email back, asking him why he hadn’t contacted the embassy, and telling him too that if he wanted my assistance that he should phone me and we could talk through the options.
The reply came almost instantaneously. The hotel staff, he said, were not giving him access to the phone system – only to email. For the same reason, he couldn’t phone the embassy.
I guess I could have tracked down the email address of the Australian embassy in Lagos and extended the dialogue, but I decided to cut to the chase: “If you are Phil, please tell me two things:
- What favour did your wife do my wife about a year ago?
- What common friend of ours is currently training with me at my boxing club?”
The reply was swift and predictable: “No time to answer questions. Just wire the money to this address …”
I eventually got on to Phil by phone – the real Phil, that is. He was still in Sydney, happily working away in his parish.
He said that he’s lost his laptop’s address book somehow, and that everybody on his mailing list had received similar emails to the ones I’d received. I encouraged him to broadcast an email to the same group again, assuring them that any appeals from Lagos were a hoax. He said he’d like to, but he hadn’t had the list backed up, and so he wasn’t sure who to contact!
I guess there are a few obvious lessons to be learnt here about protecting yourself against identity theft – don’t lose your laptop, be careful what sensitive data your store on your hard disk, back up your address book, etc. but the most important defence against these crimes is even more straightforward – use your brain!
I had a friend who lost everything to one of these identity theft syndicates in Lagos. Why? Because he didn’t use his brain.
- If someone offers you an unbelievable amount of money online, don’t believe it.
- If you receive an email that is too good to be true, it’s not true.
- And if an old mate suddenly contacts you from Lagos … try calling him at home before you wire him any cash.
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