2007 01 30
Have you ever wondered what would happen if, instead of deleting email spam and junk mail, you answered it instead?
We did. And our experience in doing so was as instructive about the culture of identity and anonymity on the internet as it is about the mechanics of the particular scam we encountered. It revealed, too, some of the dangers and opportunities emerging from the worldwide proximity the web enables. Sometimes the global village is more local than you think.
In late December Peter and I posted an ad at Craigslist, an online community hosting classifieds and discussion forums in and about 450 cities, including Toronto. Our ad wasn't exciting: no twosome seeking a third, no videotaped episodes of Twitch City for sale; just some space available to rent.
We began to receive responses almost immediately. Within hours. Almost all from people outside the country. "Great!", we thought. "Craigslist really has international appeal. This is so much better than simply placing an ad with one of the local weeklies."
We figured some of the replies must be scams, especially the ones asking for our banking information. But one stood out. An international student, Rosevelt Wagner, inquired politely about the accommodations and fee:
With respect, I wish to confirm your listed property, I'll wish to either rent or share. My names, Rosevelt Wagner, am 24.I'am travelling down from Netherland for a research programme in your area described here.The email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, didn't match up with the country, but no matter. Peter replied, offering details already listed at Craigslist and confirming our street address.
A few days later, we received a bank draft in the mail. An HSBC bank draft in the amount of $4500. Perplexing, since we weren't expecting any such windfall. There was no return address on the envelope, which was postmarked at a Canada Post office in North York. Curious. We called HSBC seeking information, and were unsurprised to learn that neither the draft's colour nor transaction number were legitimate. We called the police, who came by, picked up the slip, gave us the number of a fraud investigator, and left.
The next day, we received an email from Rosevelt Wagner. From the Netherlands. Or perhaps the UK. Asking if we had received the draft. The draft we noticed had been mailed not from the Netherlands or the UK but from North York. Rosevelt wrote,
I was informed that the payment sent to you was for"Alternate arrangements," eh. At this point we decided to have some fun.
In a series of exchanges, Rosevelt instructed Peter to deposit the bank draft, and to send $2800, via Western Union money order, to one Greg Andrew, at 528 Lea Bridge Rd, London, E10 7DT UK. This amount, which presumably we would deduct from the $4500 bank draft, would cover Rosevelt's travel arrangements to Canada. Rosevelt, for his (her?) part, promised us more rent money upon arrival.
We decided to see whether we could get Rosevelt to give us some information that might be helpful in the investigation. Peter asked for a telephone number so they could speak. Shortly afterward, the telephone rang, although the caller's voice was indistinct and very garbled. The call was untraceable. A few minutes after that, Peter received another emailed request to send $2800 by money order. Claiming that he (she?) was now being forced to sell off possessions, Rosevelt also asked whether Peter would pick him (her?) up at the airport. Peter reinterated the need to talk to somebody on the phone. Rosevelt sent along a number for one Greg Andrew at +447011150869, and then, perhaps as a helpful afterthought, forwarded an email address: . After that, things rapidly became more urgent. Rosevelt's next email was headed "SAVE MY TIME FROM DELAY" and spoke of camping out at Bayswater London Inn and requesting we send a money order to 8-16 Princes Square - W2 4NT London. Rosevelt's email concluded,
what is important for me is to come over to canada ,Unmoved, Peter replied,
That sounds terrible. Please, don't waste any moreShortly afterward, the telephone rang. The caller demanded money and accused us of fraud. After shouting, he (a male, this time) hung up. This time we were able to trace the call. It wasn't from the UK. The call was from Toronto: 416-503-2984. Rosevelt's next email, headed "what would you gain if i die" complained, that we had caused her (him?) to develop hypertension, accused us (accurately, actually) of having fun at his (her?) expense, and accused us of fraud. On the bright side, Rosevelt's request for wired money had now fallen to a mere $800. That's progress, if a scam is also a kind of negotiation. Then the phone rang. Again. This time a male voice screamed mostly incoherent invective sounding like demands for money and a threat to kill us if we went to the police. Or, alternatively, threatening to go to the police if we didn't send money. And surely enough, an email arrived shortly thereafter, purporting to be from London Police at asking "Can you explain to us the reason why you have held unto her money up to this time and trying to scam a poor and dying lady of money." A curious approach to an investigation. But an even more curious thing was appended to the email. Some text and a link, directing our curious attention to
Call Center MonitoringPeter's (final) reply:
if you not real then draft not real. ifBy this time we had, of course, already conveyed the new information to the Toronto Police. And although the phone has rung oddly a few times since then, and while we have continued to receive queries from people hoping they can rent space by international money order, and although I had a very strange visit at the front door this morning, we haven't received any more emails from Rosevelt Wagner.
A long short story? Perhaps not. It seems that one Rosevelt Wagner has been associated with at least one other internet scam. The Toronto number from which we received threats and invective, 416-503-2984, too, has been associated with various attempts at telephone fraud. The SunDial link returns to a well-known supplier of call centre systems. One which, it appears, is vulnerable to being hacked. The scam itself is, of course, nearly age old. Most of us have encountered it as the 'Nigerian Scam' (which is now equally likely to originate in Sierra Leone or ... the Netherlands), but it takes many forms. The similarity, though, is that someone sends you a bank draft and requests you transfer some smaller amount of money back to them in the form of a money order or wire transfer. If you are gullible or a little greedy, you don't know that the back draft you received is fraudulent. Neither does the bank, which will come after you a few weeks later when it fails to clear.
But there’s more to the story than forgery and scammery.
We feel we know our city. Toronto envelops us physically. We know approximately where it starts and where it ends. Not exactly, on any given day – but not that far north of Steeles. Some summer evenings, when the whole city seems to sit gridlocked in cottage-bound cars, maybe Highway 7 or perhaps as far as Barrie.
And we know our neighbours. Not too intimately, of course. Toronto’s no small town or village for rummaging each other’s business. But still. We share Toronto in understanding and imagination. It’s more than landmarks, bus-routes, where to jaywalk – and where not to.
We don’t get in each other’s business – but that’s actually one way we recognize and acknowledge each other in Toronto. We’re more aloof in Toronto than in Gananoque, for instance. This doesn’t mean we’re anonymous strangers, though. It’s just an agreement we share. Our notion of being civilized in the big city. A cultural agreement.
Not so when we get online. All too often, when we get online, we become anonymous strangers. Whether we planned to or not, we end up adopting the pseudonymous guises afforded by anonymity. Even when we posture under our own name, our exhibitions often amount to fraudulent misrepresentations. Which, on second thinking, is quite surprising. Wasn’t the world wide web of electronic networking supposed to reduce the global to a village? And in villages, unlike globe-class cities, doesn’t everyone know each other? Wasn’t the internet supposed to usher us into each other’s business? Each other’s back yards, even? Sure it was.
It was and it did. Via the internet we found our way into each other’s computers, each other’s back yards, back pockets, pants, wallets – and not always legitimately. At times this proximity has become scary. Can’t have that. And so electronic security professionals have tried selling us on (sometimes) false security. Since active measures such as electronic membranes remained necessarily permeable. So, we’ve (re)turned to anonymity. The primal yet most effective security. For while active measures may protect after we’ve been targeted, anonymity protects us from getting particularly targeted in the first place.
This is our reaction and resistance to finding ourselves too intimately networked with those we cannot trust. Anonymity. It’s a problem. We’re not persons online. Online, we’re personas. Proxies. Sock-puppets. When we go online we don ski-masks. Whether we use our real names or pseudonyms. Which is not appropriate in any village – whether global, virtual or otherwise. Anonymous, masked, we wind up looking like scammers or muggers. Any of us might be. Increasingly more of us are.
Increasingly more of us behave illegally or just abominably online. Because anonymity erodes standards, identity and principles. Sure, anonymity protects. Just as sure, though, it insulates from consequence. It ferments a culture of irresponsibility. Not what we want for our global village.
We're against it. That’s why we continued efforts designed to penetrate the scammers’ anonymity. That’s why we persisted despite police advice and despite the scammers' reminders that our identity -- and address -- was known. That we lacked anonymous security. Yeah, they know where we live. But we felt like helping the police investigation, and contributing to public awareness knowing that wire fraud isn't the most urgent police priority. We felt like standing against anonymity and against the kinds of fraudulent misrepresentations of self we encounter too often.
It is our view that there is no such thing as standing one’s ground anonymously. And though there may be no option but doing so occasionally – that’s not standing up. Regardless what one might succeed getting away with, standing up in principle is precisely not anonymous.
Something to keep in mind. That the scariest thing in Toronto might not be hiding down a dark alley. It might be waiting in your email inbox.
Amy Lavender Harris
[The virus/scam image is by Mike Young and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 01/30 at 03:05 PM
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