Scams local and foreign: exercise caution

Renton de Alwis, in Daily News, 9 March 2011

I, in my 60’s and retired recently received this e-mail in my inbox. Like most of you, I also get Internet offers to manage estates of dead husbands, hidden riches of fallen African leaders and the like. Yet, this one was different.

The sender’s address looked that of a believable hotel recruitment outfit. The snail mail address of the hotel, on a Google search was found to be correct and the text read “I am Mrs Mary Spencer, the Vacancy manager of …… hotel in London. I want to let you know that we need men and women who can work and live in London. The hotel management will assist in your visa and work permit processing and will also take care of your one-way air ticket. Interested persons can contact me via our email address”. A different email address was given for the response.Easy money

Out of sheer curiosity, I forwarded this mail to a friend in the UK, a most credible personality among Sri Lankans engaged in the hospitality industry there, Hasitha Senanayake, the assistant secretary of the prestigious Carlton Club in London for verification. Here is an extract of the response I got from him. “Such is directed at people in the whole world. People who send a reply will be asked to do a Western Union transfer. This will be between the person who replies and someone they know. A copy will be sent to the person who has placed the advert. One thinks that there is nothing to lose, but what happens is that a forged identity is used to get the money out of Western Union and the person (sender) loses the money. This is a scam”. And with that our exchange led to yet another alarming finding.

He went on to say “but a bigger SCAM is from ‘agents’ in Sri Lanka sending students to the UK. These students suffer because they have been sent with false promises (of employment). I know this first hand, for I have four such students working at the Club after friends have contacted me to assist them. They have paid between Rs 2 – 2.5 million to get here and they have not worked for six to seven months and one of them was closer to committing suicide….. I do my best to help, for these boys and girls have given up jobs back home, hoping to make it here. I have been here for 35 years and this is the worst, I have experienced. These agents in Sri Lanka need to be brought down. (The truth is that) students can only work 10 hours (a week) legally plus there is huge unemployment in the UK! This is the second time I have been made aware of this type of thing”.

False promises

His statement “I have been here 35 years and this is the worst I have experienced” needs to be taken serious note of. We hear similar tales about our workers and students sent to Singapore too. Seeking illegal work, some are jailed, caned and deported thereafter. Back home, tricksters and sham-makers are at work like we have seen never before. We had the many easy money making schemes that crashed leaving hundreds of thousands of people in a hapless situation. Driven by greed, they sought unrealistic interest rates for their hard earned money, to only lose it all.

The targets are not only those that are driven by excessive greed but also innocents that are hard working men and women.

Palitha is a three-wheeler driver living and operating close to where I live. Very early on Sunday morning, Palitha came to see me. He was all excited and had a printed e-mail with him. His intent was to ask me to interpret what it meant for him. He was with the impression that he had won a competition.

It was a mail he received in response to answering a simple question in an SMS message he got on his mobile-phone, sometime ago. The sender of the message had asked him to field an email address with the answer. He had given the address of the communication centre he uses to ‘upload’ funds to his phone and now got this email in return. It said that he had won several hundred thousand UK Pounds and was to send an initial processing fee by a tele-money transfer to an address given to claim his prize.

Most of us would have not bothered to take any notice of the SMS and written it off as another hoax. But not Palitha, his excitement was genuine and he was hopeful of gaining new riches.

We cannot blame him for we live in times when some radio channels pay their listeners to tune on to that station. I explained to him what these tricksters were up to and advised him not to send any money. It was sad to see his face drop and the look of disappointment that replaced the enthusiasm with which he came in.

A bouquet

A brave and noble attempt is made by yet another of our radio stations in presenting a feature program dedicated to exposing such hoax attempts and tricksters and a huge bouquet to them from me. This Monday morning, the exposure was of a woman who charged between Rs 20,000 to 60,000 to cure hopeful ‘suckers’ who respond to her many promotions and advertisements.

Her claim is that she had acquired the powers of Chitta Rupa Vidyawa (Science of Mind-Mapping). She was no qualified practitioner of any science or area of medicine, but yet another smart trickster. The program producers proved it with an actual confrontational ‘interview’ with her. There were other callers who testified on how they have been duped by this person into loosing big money. It is sad that some of these tricksters are allowed to advertise their claims prominently on some media. It must indeed be the responsibility of all media and the State agencies to shield and protect the public from such scams.

They must ensure that the credentials of those who advertise on the various publications, stations and channels are credible and are worthy of public exposure. Claims of Vashee Guru Kam, Yaga and Puujas are used by many to dupe the innocent of tens of thousands of rupees at a time and regrettably adverts are run repeatedly by established media outlets, providing them credibility.

Stringent controls

This is no different in the employment and education spheres as we discovered in Hasitha’s rendering of what some of our ’employment agents’ are up to.

In spite of the existence of the State arm of the Foreign Employment Bureau, we often hear tales of duped workers who are stranded in foreign lands. The Canadian authorities just issued a warning against agencies claiming to get Sri Lankans entry into that country. We heard of fiasco where most inhuman methods are used for human smuggling into countries in Europe and Far-East and the suffering our citizens have to go through.

It is time that we as a nation took serious note of what is happening around us and begin to set in place, stringent controls to nab those who make suckers of innocent unsuspecting people.

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