Conning and scamming runs deeply into humanity’s DNA. Since the first of our distant ancestors felt the twinges of avarice and vanity, people have been swindling each other for personal gain. As a general rule people are greedy and prone to flattery, allowing common sense to be temporarily replaced by stupidity. From magic beans to brick factories, snake oil to property deals, the number of tricks is limitless But they all follow the same basic tactics.
Cambodia, with its lax visa laws and next to useless ‘competent authorities’, has had somewhat of a reputation as a magnet for hucksters over the years with British drug addicts, American boiler-room fraudsters, fake doctors, Filipino card gangs, Chinese extortion rackets, fake land dealers, et al, finding their way to the kingdom.
Of course, despite the ‘Khmer love Khmer’ fallacy, Cambodians have been getting up to trickery with each other as long as everybody else has. Some are superstitious in nature, such as ‘the magic touch’ where some woman of witchery can control a victim into emptying their ATM by simply laying a finger upon them. Others are more orthodox in their execution. The ‘pig in a poke’ or ‘cat in a bag’ scam, for example, is well practiced in marketplaces, with unsuspecting marks ending up trading cash and phones for a bag of sweet Fanny Adams. Does anyone remember this tale of caution from a few years ago? The classic ‘pigeon drop’.
A well-dressed Cambodian lady once approached a half-witted youth acquaintance of mine outside Kampong Speu market. She told him that she represented an NGO who were giving away free bicycles to poor students and asked him a few questions. Satisfied with the answers, she gave the hapless lad a ticket and told him to go into the market to redeem his gift. One more thing, the lady announced Lieutenant Columbo style, the organization handing out the bicycles can be quite strict, so best let me look after your jewelry, in case they don’t believe you are poor enough to qualify, I’ll stay here. The dimwitted boy handed over his necklace and strolled off into the market, to discover the bicycles were non-existent and the kindly lady had disappeared.
As times change, so do the schemes. Back in the days of AOL and cracking one out to a JPEG of Pammy Anderson which teasingly took forever to download pixelated line by pixelated line, a plethora of African princes, lawyers and General’s widows have been using email to offer untold riches for anyone willing to enter into a $$$$$$ conspiracy.
These 419 scams, as they have been dubbed, are now the source of ridicule across most of the world. Sure, billions of emails are still sent out into cyberspace, but thanks to common sense and spam filters the number of gullible dupes wiring out advance payments has tailed off significantly.
As times and technology changes, so have the tactics employment by these nefarious international greedy grabbing emailing rascals. Facebook, for example, is full of to-good-to-be-true offers on normally expensive consumer goods, with the giveaway +234 dialing code for Nigeria. Now, with the rise of social media, messaging aps and Google translate, an updated version of the old ploys have found a new playing field amongst poor, naïve and, yes, greedy Cambodian women.
Whilst evolving, these guys like to stick to the same script. After a little research involving female in-laws and their smartphones, it isn’t so difficult to crack.
Stage One: The Cast.
Cambodians will accept anyone as Facebook friends, absolutely anyone. It’s a source of pride to obtain the maximum 5000 friends on Zuckerburg’s mind control experiment. In contrast I have about 500 ‘friends’ who I knew, or at least met once, half of which I keep meaning to get around to deleting. In reality lifebook I have only one friend nowadays, the Dutch guy in the next village who likes beer but not Muslims, and is hiding out in the countryside of Kampong Speu due to issues with chemtrails and the illuminati, so I prefer to follow a more anti-social network.
The 419-er recognizes this character trait amongst SEA women, and armed with a stock photo of an aging white bloke in a suit and an inconceivable Britishy sounding name (Elvis Macdonald is a popular choice, and one we shall return to) they press the ‘friend’ button as often as possible.
Stage Two: The Bait.
Now the guy has access to all the personal information he needs (and the 4999 other names in the friends list) he makes first contact. He will use badly constructed English sentences to explain he is (according to the script) an engineer from Scotland with no family, who wants to help this particular girl. If the bargirl English technique fails due to a lack of understanding, Google translate gets the job done in local parlance, along with, evidence suggests, the help of a Khmer stooge.
Outlandish claims are made, such as owning many properties in the UK, with many staff on ludicrous wages. Depending on the mark’s circumstances a few different scripts are pulled out. For those looking for love, the promise of marriage is brought up, for the single mothers, financial support is mentioned and for those lusting after material items cameras, iPhones and laptops are dangled as no-strings gifts.
So, my wife, see, well, she’s got this sister, who falls into the single mum camp, and has shown me some messages from such a Scottish engineer, up in the granite city of Aberdeen. Using my knowledge of both the British Isles and my mother tongue, I tried proving that this wasn’t the reality. Exasperated, I explained that my legendary ‘stinginess’ towards my in-laws can’t even come close to the tight-fisted fiscal approach taken by those who hail from across the Tweed.
“WHY WOULD ANYONE, LET ALONE A BLOODY JOCK OF ALL PEOPLE GIVE A CAMBODIAN PEASANT A HUNDRED GRAND, WHEN THEY’VE NEVER EVEN MET THEM?”
Reluctantly I was given access to the conversations and wound the guy up with questions about Aberdeen and gems like ‘What is a lagos bong? What is niggerian man my love?’ Quickly I was called ‘Rude’, ‘Crazy’ and ‘Not get anything now, crazy woman’ by the Bonny Scotchman. Then the conversation got blocked. Despite everything pointing to this not being the solution to all our problems, the sister got a bit pissed with me.
There is what should be known as The Fairy Tale Effect among Cambodian women, and blame should be laid onto (in no particular order) romantic TV shows dubbed into Khmer, belief in ‘luck’, petty gossip about supposedly richer neighbours and the audacity of poverty hope. Oh, and greed. And stupidity.
Stage Three: The Hook.
These fellows play the long game. After messaging and dropping hints for a while, the topic turns from flattery to the scam proper. The long touted offers change into concrete promises, for visas/money transfers. Thanks to a bit of basic photoshop skills shipping labels are sent as attachments to prove the genuine intent of the generous benefactor. Luckily Cambodians have very few geographical skills and few are going to be spelling bee champs, so schoolboy errors like Birmingham being in Scotland and a company called Delivery Panters go unnoticed. Excited by imminent gifts of laptops, cameras and ipads, the ladies in Cambodia eagerly await their arrival, but, as instructed by their beau, keep it to themselves should family or friends get jealous. Forget the naysayers and haters – the fairy tale has come true, for once!
Stage Four: The Catch.
Here’s the catch kid. Landing the fish is the most difficult part, especially after so much time and effort has been spent in internet cafes from Lagos to Phnom Penh. And this is where the local connection comes in. Depending on the level of player and the script it goes a little something like this;
There is a problem (really, whodathunkit?) and a sum of money (paltry really, compared to the goods on offer) needs to be sent in order to rectify the situation. Alarm bells ringing? To sensible people, they should be. Sometimes a local accomplice will call up, claiming to be from the customs department or delivery company, offering to help solve things, as soon as money has been sent by Wing. Like the youth with his necklace, logical thinking (which to be fair isn’t exactly a strong local character trait) goes out the window and desire kicks in. The conman gets his booty and the dupe gets duped. Then the process is repeated with a new Facebook ‘friend’ from Stage One.
Case File: The Great Hairy Face Swindle
My wife’s family and friends have given me plenty of ground to go on regarding this subject. As she speaks English pretty well, and I’m just about fluent, we’re forever getting messages like:
‘The man wants to marry me, but the documents are stuck in the airport, how much does it cost to get the documents from England?’
‘So your friend is planning to get married to some dude she met on Facebook and has never once Skyped to see his face?’
‘He say Skype not work’ and other face palm inducing excuses come up.
The latest one is where a certain Elvis MacDonald comes in. Check him out on Facebook; he’s a greying fat dude from Scotland standing in front of a Lebanese flag (??). A cursory check of Google brings this name up as having previous for 419-ing. Evidently he’d been running through the program with my wife’s debt-ridden cousin, who we call Hairy Face, but not to her hairy face, because, well, the name speaks for itself.
Of course she kept this online romantic dalliance a close secret, ‘cos you know how jealous these other peasants can get when they hear some rich old guy plans to pay off your loan sharks and send a ton of expensive electronics as a gift. Some neighbour’s might go as far as putting a Cham curse on the whole thing, just out of spite.
Claiming to be a rich, lonesome Scottish engineer, bla bla bla, Elvis MacD communicated through each of the stages in pretty expert Khmer, which rings more alarm bells and suggests a local accomplice a bit more linguistically skilled than Google translate.
Then, you see, a funny thing happened. My wife was sent, via Hairy Face, a photo of a shipping label from Elvis, with the shipping company ‘Delivery Panters Express LTD’. The names on the label had been crudely doctored by photoshop, although with the skills of an MS paint user. The sender’s address was genuine, from Birmingham, in the West Midlands. However, another part of the same label read Edinburgh, which is a good 300 miles north of Brummyland. And, just one more thing, it was sent as Diplomatic Documents and a World Wide Diplomatic Package. You don’t have to have the sharp mind of Peter Falk’s scruffy TV detective to understand something just don’t add up. The catch? Somebody from the airport had called her to say that the importation of such valuable goods was illegal, but could be resolved ‘off the record’ for just $350.
After seeing the case presented, the air was turned blue by the sort of language expected in 1920s rural Alabama, or contemporary films about 1920s rural Alabama. On hearing my judgment, Hairy face’s follically endowed jaw dropped a little, which was put down to disappointment that Elvis MacDonald was nothing more than a 419 confidence trickster.
Later, with a few tears, she confided in my wife that she had, indeed, borrowed even more money that she couldn’t afford to pay off these unofficial channels. Hell, this was the dream ticket, the camera, laptop and iphone 6 could easily be sold on and her account with the village money lender might almost be back to black, with Elvis not even having to know, ha ha ha. Then, after the money was sent to a random telephone number via Wing, Prince Elvis, the not-so-charming blocked all communication.
Foolish, yes. Greed driven, definitely, but there is an important lesson to be had here. If it’s sounds too good to be true, then it’s probably a West African trying to take your money.
As the western target market has become more aware, with only the really, really stupid and old folk with Alzheimer’s responding to African princes, new markets and opportunities are emerging where uneducated folk are given access to the internet without a crash course on who roams cyberspace looking to make a fraudulent buck or three. Word is slowly getting out, thanks to community phone in programmes on ABC Radio, but when I get asked whether a 6 headed naga caught in Kampong Cham going viral on Facebook is real, or if the Zika virus had been really been sprayed over Phnom Penh by Vietnamese agents, then it’s pretty safe to bet that safe internet safety steps are still in their infancy in Cambodia.
Just one more thing, this is a global business, running not only out of Western Africa, but Bangkok, London and downtown Steung Meanchey. There are the scammers at work, their accomplices (probably girlfriends and junkies) and plenty of ‘lovestruck’ western woman across the world who fall for the charms of crooks and act as facilitators, by allowing addresses to be used as drop offs for various proceeds of crime.
And yes, this is nothing new; these schemes are almost as old as the internet, but there is a new target coming online like never before, lacking the techy guile which other long term netizens take for granted. Sadly it’s something learned the hard and expensive way by those duped by the fairytale complex, as poor Hairy Face found to her bitter disappointment.