Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Have We Lost The Ability To Think For Ourselves?

What do scammers always use to their advantage? What enables con-artists to swindle their victims? What is the most important thing scammers always rely on? Only one thing, the victim's inability to think for himself/herself.

The other day I saw an add for an e-book about some magical way to cancel traffic fines or to get them refunded (I'm not going to mention the name of the book, because it is a load of hogwash and I'm not going to give it any form of exposure except for illustrating my point). For starters, some lines on the website were poorly formatted with some strange HTML coding. Certain pieces of the text were aligned to print over other pieces of text, making some parts of the page totally illegible. This was caused by some funny div-statements used by the web designer. (This guy obviously did not know what he was doing). But it is not important to know what the web designer did wrong, it is more important to note that the seller of this e-book could not be trusted. Why? Because if he can't even format his website properly (or at least get someone to do it for him), how can you be certain that the owner won't steal you money and sell you a piece of junk looking like his website? But lets forget about the poorly designed website for a moment and focus on the product he was trying to sell.

This book, will presumably help you to get your traffic fines cancelled or even refunded by exploiting flaws on parking and speeding tickets. The book is therefore aimed at traffic fines in general and not UNFAIR or INVALID traffic fines (as a matter of fact, the author makes no mention of the words UNFAIR or INVALID on his website). The site does not even contain a single encouragement to motorists to keep within the speeding limit, to put money in the parking meter or to drive safely within the bounds of the laws of the road. No, the sole purpose of this book is to get traffic fines cancelled or refunded, whether you committed an actual offence or not. Now think about this for a moment, why should you buy a book to exploit the loopholes of the law in order to save money in traffic fines, if you can save money by just sticking to the law? In other words you don't need to spend a single penny to save money, you just need to use your damn brain. This book is actually encouraging reckless driving and should be banned. If you really exceeded the speed limit for instance, why should you be able to get the traffic fine cancelled. You contravened a law and you should pay the fine (and don't give me that bull that loopholes in the law is there to be exploited). It is a whole different scenario if you were wrongfully accused of a traffic offence, but this is not what the book is about (or at least that is not the impression the site gave me). But the most disturbing fact is that there are people who will actually buy this book. Really, you got to be brain-dead to buy a piece of junk like this! And this is why I ask the humble question, have we lost the ability to think for ourselves?

Have you ever wondered why people accept so many things and question so very little? I believe this is often the result of a fast paced lifestyle, where there is no time to think about something, you need to make a decision immediately without contemplating. But can we blame our bad decisions on the pressures of modern day life? Any normal person possesses the ability to reason, but it seems as if more and more people are losing this ability by the day. Are we really losing the ability to think for ourselves, or are we deliberately suppressing our ability to reason? I always ask myself these questions when I analyse scam e-mails and fraudulent websites and most of the times I simply cannot understand how it is possible for a healthy mind to be swindled by obvious scams like these. And by obvious, I mean scams containing obvious and common signs of fraud and deceit.

I have to admit, not all scams are that obvious and it has to be mentioned that some of them are quite cleverly designed to look like the real thing. But the majority of scams contain telltale signs of deceit (whether it is a scam e-mail, a fraudulent website, an obscure add in a magazine, a call from an unknown individual or a dishonest salesman). The main problem is, many people only accept the solution or promise presented by the scammer and never pay attention to the means by which the scammer attempts to solve the problem or deliver the promise. The driving force behind the success of almost any scam is money and greed. You need a combination of both to make a scam successful and a greedy victim walks a greater risk of stepping into the trap set by the scammer, without realising it. But greed is not the only factor, ignorance is another weakness exploited by scammers, to improve their chances of successfully swindling their victims.

How long will we be able to use ignorance as an excuse? There are so much information about the latest scams, freely available on the web. Financial institutions post warning messages and examples of scam e-mails on their websites and some companies even communicate directly with their clients about the latest tricks and gimmicks used by scammers. With all this information at our doorsteps and sometimes even in our laps, how can we use the lame excuse of "I didn't know"? Computer illiteracy is also a stumbling block for many people, but computers have become part of our everyday lives and fewer people are computer illiterate these days. But there will always be a technological gap among computer users, because not everyone eat, sleep and drink computers. There will always be advanced and novice computer users and the latter are often at risk of falling for scams, where they don't comprehend the mechanics exploited by the scammer. But this can easily be remedied through a little bit of education. Most online banks and shopping sites have detailed guides and tutorials on the risks and signs of phishing, identity theft and other forms of fraud. These guides are often very detailed, but quite simple and easy to understand, with graphical illustrations and examples, specifically targeted at novice users. But advanced computer users should read these guides as well, because the fact that you know everything about computers does not make you immune to all forms of online fraud.

With all this information at our disposal, how is it still possible for some scammers to swindle their victims? I believe people are not taking the time to familiarise themselves with the risks of online fraud. If you don't know how to use the address bar of your browser, or why the address bar turns green on certain sites or how use your status bar to preview the address of a link, you are like a suicide bomber. It is like driving a car without the proper training, you are a danger to yourself and everyone around you. Like I mentioned earlier, the information published by banks and online shops, regarding the methods used by scammers to swindle their victims, are not that hard to understand (and for goodness sake if you don't understand these guides ask someone you trust to explain them to you). So if we have all the information about the techniques used by scammers and if they are easy to comprehend, why on earth do people still fall victim to these obvious scams? Simply because they don't read the information available to them. If your bank account was emptied by a bunch of crooks, because you clicked on a link in some e-mail about updating your personal details or something like that, then you are either living on a different planet or you haven't been paying attention to the warnings communicated by your bank. Where have you been in the last decade or so? These scams have been an active threat to the online community for several years now, so how is it possible that you haven't heard of these scams before? Honestly, people need to wake up and smell the coffee! Open your eyelids and pay attention to your surroundings! Start to THINK for yourself and stop depending on other people to do it for you!

Unethical marketers are able to convince some people to buy stuff they don't need, simply because some people are like zombies, allowing outside influences to manipulate their thoughts. Scammers follow the same tactics, they force the victim into believing everything they say in their scam e-mails or on their scam websites. The promise of millions of dollars, a valuable object or the threat of suspension of your bank account, is often so sudden (or promising), that people forget to think about the source of the e-mail or the means by which the scammer are communicating with them. The initial contact made by a scammer is a crucial point in the development of a scam. If you can't identify the scam early on, chances are that you won't realise you are being conned, until the damage is already done. The only way to identify these scams is to use common sense and a bit of scepticism. I'm not saying you need to be over-suspicious towards every e-mail and phone call you receive, but you need to look very critical at every form of communication, where you don't know the person on the other side. In other words, ask yourself the following common sense questions (where the answer to each question is obviously NO): Will the bank ask for my credit card number over the telephone? Will my bank send me an e-mail request to update my personal e-mails? Will an official from another country contact a total stranger, in connection with a multi-million dollar transaction? Will the Executive Director of the FBI use a free e-mail service to contact me about some scammers who MAY have contacted me in the past? Will a company like PayPal or Amazon make spelling and grammatical errors in their e-mails? If this is such a great business opportunity or such a revolutionary product, why haven't I heard about it before? Is it possible to make loads of money by simply distributing a chain letter received through the post? The list goes on and on...

You see, by asking a couple of critical questions you will soon be able to identify whether an e-mail, phone call or a letter in the post is a scam or not. It just needs a little bit of reasoning and common sense, there is no rocket science to it. But if you are too lazy to think for yourself, deliberately ignoring the warning signs of common fraud, then you deserve to be scammed!

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, analysers of security software and raising awareness about internet fraud and malicious software

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