Entries Tagged "cons"

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Interview with a Nigerian Internet Scammer

Really interesting reading.

Scam-Detective: How did you find victims for your scams?

John: First you need to understand how the gangs work. At the bottom are the “foot soldiers”, kids who spend all of their time online to find email addresses and send out the first emails to get people interested. When they receive a reply, the victim is passed up the chain, to someone who has better English to get copies of ID from them like copies of their passport and driving licenses and build up trust. Then when they are ready to ask for money, they are passed further up again to someone who will pretend to be a barrister or shipping agent who will tell the victim that they need to pay charges or even a bribe to get the big cash amount out of the country. When they pay up, the gang master will collect the money from the Western Union office, using fake ID that they have taken from other scam victims.

[…]

Scam-Detective: Ok, I also want to talk more about how you managed to get your victims to trust you. I know it can be difficult for legitimate businesses to persuade customers to buy their products, yet you were able to convince people to part with their cash to get their hands on money that never existed in the first place, with at least one taking an international flight on top. That’s quite a skill, how did you learn to do it?

John: Once I had spent some time as a “foot soldier” (* sending out initial approaches and passing serious victims to other scammers) I was promoted to act as either a barrister, shipping agent or bank official. In the early days I had a supervisor who would read my emails and suggest responses, then I was left to do it myself. I had lots of different documents that I would use to convince the victim that I was genuine, including photographs of an official looking man in an office, fake ID and storage manifests, bank statements showing the money, whatever would best convince the victim that I, and the money, was real. I think the English term is to “worm my way” into their trust, taking it slowly and carefully so I didn’t scare them away by asking for too much money too soon.

Scam-Detective: What would you do if a victim had sent money and couldn’t afford to send more, or got cold feet?

John: I would use whatever tactics were needed to get more money. I would send faked letters which stated that the money was about to be taken out of the account by the bank or seized by the government to make them think it was urgent, or tell them that this was definitely the last obstacle to the money being released. I would encourage them to take out loans or borrow money from friends to make the last payment, but tell them that it was important that they didn’t tell anyone what the money was for. I promised them that the expenses would be paid back on top of their share of the money.

[…]

John: We had something called the recovery approach. A few months after the original scam, we would approach the victim again, this time pretending to be from the FBI, or the Nigerian Authorities. The email would tell the victim that we had caught a scammer and had found all of the details of the original scam, and that the money could be recovered. Of course there would be fees involved as well. Victims would often pay up again to try and get their money back.

This sounds just like any other confidence game; in fact, it’s a modern variation on a classic con game called the Spanish Prisoner. The only difference is that this one uses the Internet.

Posted on February 11, 2010 at 7:19 AMView Comments

The Psychology of Being Scammed

This is a very interesting paper: “Understanding scam victims: seven principles for systems security,” by Frank Stajano and Paul Wilson. Paul Wilson produces and stars in the British television show The Real Hustle, which does hidden camera demonstrations of con games. (There’s no DVD of the show available, but there are bits of it on YouTube.) Frank Stajano is at the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge.

The paper describes a dozen different con scenarios — entertaining in itself — and then lists and explains six general psychological principles that con artists use:

1. The distraction principle. While you are distracted by what retains your interest, hustlers can do anything to you and you won’t notice.

2. The social compliance principle. Society trains people not to question authority. Hustlers exploit this “suspension of suspiciousness” to make you do what they want.

3. The herd principle. Even suspicious marks will let their guard down when everyone next to them appears to share the same risks. Safety in numbers? Not if they’re all conspiring against you.

4. The dishonesty principle. Anything illegal you do will be used against you by the fraudster, making it harder for you to seek help once you realize you’ve been had.

5. The deception principle. Things and people are not what they seem. Hustlers know how to manipulate you to make you believe that they are.

6. The need and greed principle. Your needs and desires make you vulnerable. Once hustlers know what you really want, they can easily manipulate you.

It all makes for very good reading.

Two previous posts on the psychology of conning and being conned.

EDITED TO ADD (12/12): Some of the episodes of The Real Hustle are available on the BBC site, but only to people with UK IP addresses — or people with a VPN tunnel to the UK.

Posted on November 30, 2009 at 6:17 AMView Comments

Hotel Safe Scam

This is interesting:

Since then, his scams have tended to take place in luxury hotels around the world.

Typically, he would arrive at a hotel, claim to be a guest, and then tell security that he had forgotten the combination code to his safe.

When hotel staff helped him to open the safe, he would pocket the contents and make his escape.

Doesn’t the hotel staff ask for ID before doing something like that?

Posted on October 7, 2009 at 1:07 PMView Comments

Man-in-the-Middle Trucking Attack

Clever:

For over three years the pair hacked into a Department of Transportation website called Safersys.org, which maintains a list of licensed interstate-trucking companies and brokers, according to an affidavit (.pdf) filed by a DOT investigator. There, they would temporarily change the contact information for a legitimate trucking company to an address and phone number under their control.

The men then took to the web-based “load boards” where brokers advertise cargo in need of transportation. They’d negotiate a deal, for example, to transport cargo from American Canyon, California, to Jessup, Maryland, for $3,500.

But instead of transporting the load, Lakes and Berkovich would outsource the job to another trucking company, the feds say, posing as the legitimate company whose identity they’d hijacked. Once the cargo was delivered, the men invoiced their customer and pocketed the funds. But when the company that actually drove the truck tried to get paid, they’d eventually discover that the firm who’d supposedly hired them didn’t know anything about it.

Actually, not so clever. I’m amazed it went on for three years. You’d think that more than a few of the subcontracters would pick up the phone and call the original customers — and they’d figure out what happened. Maybe there are just so many trucking companies, and so many people who need cargo shipped places, that they were able to hide for three years.

But this scheme was bound to unravel sooner or later. If the criminal middlemen had legitimately subcontracted the work and just pocketed the difference, they might have remained undiscovered forever. But that’s much less profit per contract.

Posted on August 13, 2009 at 5:09 AMView Comments

New Real Estate Scam

Clever:

Nigerian scammers find homes listed for sale on these public search sites, copy the pictures and listings verbatim, and then post the information onto Craigslist under available housing rentals, without the consent or knowledge of Craigslist, who has been notified.

After the posting is listed, unsuspecting individuals contact the poster, who is Nigerian, for more information on the “rental.” The Nigerian scammer will state that they had to leave the country very quickly to do missionary or contract work in Africa and were unable to rent their house before leaving, therefore they have to take care of this remotely. The “homeowner” sends the prospective renter an application and tells them to send them first and last month’s rent to the Nigerian scammer via Western Union. The prospective renter is further told If they “qualify,” they will send them the keys for their house. Once the money is wired to the scammer, they show up at the house, see the home is actually for sale, are unable to access the property, and their money is gone.

Posted on July 29, 2009 at 5:31 AMView Comments

Fraud on eBay

I expected selling my computer on eBay to be easy.

Attempt 1: I listed it. Within hours, someone bought it — from a hacked account, as eBay notified me, cancelling the sale.

Attempt 2: I listed it again. Within hours, someone bought it, and asked me to send it to her via FedEx overnight. The buyer sent payment via PayPal immediately, and then — near as I could tell — immediately opened a dispute with PayPal so that the funds were put on hold. And then she sent me an e-mail saying “I paid you, now send me the computer.” But PayPal was faster than she expected, I think. At the same time, I received an e-mail from PayPal saying that I might have received a payment that the account holder did not authorize, and that I shouldn’t ship the item until the investigation is complete.

I’m willing to make Attempt 3, if just to see what kind of scam happens this time. But I still want to sell the computer, and I am pissed off at what is essentially a denial-of-service attack. The facts from this listing are accurate; does anyone want it? List price is over $3K. Send me e-mail.

EDITED TO ADD (6/19): It’s not just me.

EDITED TO ADD (6/24): The computer is sold, to someone who reads my blog.

EDITED TO ADD (6/25): I’m not entirely sure, but it looks like the payment from the second eBay buyer has gone through PayPal. I don’t trust it — just because I can’t figure out the scam doesn’t mean there isn’t one. And, anyway, the computer is sold.

EDITED TO ADD (7/3): For the record: despite articles to the contrary, I was not scammed on eBay. I was the victim of two scam attempts, both of which I detected and did not fall for.

Posted on June 19, 2009 at 11:55 AMView Comments

The Psychology of Being Scammed

Fascinating research on the psychology of con games. “The psychology of scams: Provoking and committing errors of judgement” was prepared for the UK Office of Fair Trading by the University of Exeter School of Psychology.

From the executive summary, here’s some stuff you may know:

Appeals to trust and authority: people tend to obey authorities so scammers use, and victims fall for, cues that make the offer look like a legitimate one being made by a reliable official institution or established reputable business.

Visceral triggers: scams exploit basic human desires and needs — such as greed, fear, avoidance of physical pain, or the desire to be liked — in order to provoke intuitive reactions and reduce the motivation of people to process the content of the scam message deeply. For example, scammers use triggers that make potential victims focus on the huge prizes or benefits on offer.

Scarcity cues. Scams are often personalised to create the impression that the offer is unique to the recipient. They also emphasise the urgency of a response to reduce the potential victim’s motivation to process the scam content objectively.

Induction of behavioural commitment. Scammers ask their potential victims to make small steps of compliance to draw them in, and thereby cause victims to feel committed to continue sending money.

The disproportionate relation between the size of the alleged reward and the cost of trying to obtain it. Scam victims are led to focus on the alleged big prize or reward in comparison to the relatively small amount of money they have to send in order to obtain their windfall; a phenomenon called ‘phantom fixation’. The high value reward (often life-changing, medically, financially, emotionally or physically) that scam victims thought they could get by responding, makes the money to be paid look rather small by comparison.

Lack of emotional control. Compared to non-victims, scam victims report being less able to regulate and resist emotions associated with scam offers. They seem to be unduly open to persuasion, or perhaps unduly undiscriminating about who they allow to persuade them. This creates an extra vulnerability in those who are socially isolated, because social networks often induce us to regulate our emotions when we otherwise might not.

And some stuff that surprised me:

…it was striking how some scam victims kept their decision to respond private and avoided speaking about it with family members or friends. It was almost as if with some part of their minds, they knew that what they were doing was unwise, and they feared the confirmation of that that another person would have offered. Indeed to some extent they hide their response to the scam from their more rational selves.

Another counter-intuitive finding is that scam victims often have better than average background knowledge in the area of the scam content. For example, it seems that people with experience of playing legitimate prize draws and lotteries are more likely to fall for a scam in this area than people with less knowledge and experience in this field. This also applies to those with some knowledge of investments. Such knowledge
can increase rather than decrease the risk of becoming a victim.

…scam victims report that they put more cognitive effort into analysing scam content than non-victims. This contradicts the intuitive suggestion that people fall victim to scams because they invest too little cognitive energy in investigating their content, and thus overlook potential information that might betray the scam. This may, however, reflect the victim being ‘drawn in’ to the scam whilst non-victims include many people who discard scams without giving them a second glance.

Related: the psychology of con games.

Posted on June 17, 2009 at 2:05 PMView Comments

Second SHB Workshop Liveblogging (2)

The first session was about deception, moderated by David Clark.

Frank Stajano, Cambridge University (suggested reading: Understanding victims: Six principles for systems security), presented research with Paul Wilson, who films actual scams for “The Real Hustle.” His point is that we build security systems based on our “logic,” but users don’t always follow our logic. It’s fraudsters who really understand what people do, so we need to understand what the fraudsters understand. Things like distraction, greed, unknown accomplices, social compliance are important.

David Livingstone Smith, University of New England (suggested reading: Less than human: self-deception in the imagining of others; Talk on Lying at La Ciudad de Las Ideas; a subsequent discussion; Why War?), is a philosopher by training, and goes back to basics: “What are we talking about?” A theoretical definition — “that which something has to have to fall under a term” — of deception is difficult to define. “Cause to have a false belief,” from the Oxford English Dictionary, is inadequate. “To deceive is intentionally have someone to have a false belief” also doesn’t work. “Intentionally causing someone to have a false belief that the speaker knows to be false” still isn’t good enough. The fundamental problem is that these are anthropocentric definitions. Deception is not unique to humans; it gives organisms an evolutionary edge. For example, the mirror orchid fools a wasp into landing on it by looking like and giving off chemicals that mimic the female wasp. This example shows that we need a broader definition of “purpose.” His formal definition: “For systems A and B, A deceives B iff A possesses some character C with proper function F, and B possesses a mechanism C* with the proper function F* of producing representations, such that the proper function of C is to cause C* to fail to perform F* by causing C* to form false representations, and C does so in virtue of performing F, and B’s falsely representing enables some feature of A to perform its proper function.”

I spoke next, about the psychology of Conficker, how the human brain buys security, and why science fiction writers shouldn’t be hired to think about terrorism risks (to be published on Wired.com next week).

Dominic Johnson, University of Edinburgh (suggested reading: Paradigm Shifts in Security Strategy; Perceptions of victory and defeat), talked about his chapter in the book Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World. Life has 3.5 billion years of experience in security innovation; let’s look at how biology approaches security. Biomimicry, ecology, paleontology, animal behavior, evolutionary psychology, immunology, epidemiology, selection, and adaption are all relevant. Redundancy is a very important survival tool for species. Here’s an adaption example: The 9/11 threat was real and we knew about it, but we didn’t do anything. His thesis: Adaptation to novel security threats tends to occur after major disasters. There are many historical examples of this; Pearl Harbor, for example. Causes include sensory biases, psychological biases, leadership biases, organizational biases, and political biases — all pushing us towards maintaining the status quo. So it’s natural for us to poorly adapt to security threats in the modern world. A questioner from the audience asked whether control theory had any relevance to this model.

Jeff Hancock, Cornell University (suggested reading: On Lying and Being Lied To: A Linguistic Analysis of Deception in Computer-Mediated Communication; Separating Fact From Fiction: An Examination of Deceptive Self-Presentation in Online Dating Profiles), studies interpersonal deception: how the way we lie to each other intersects with communications technologies; and how technologies change the way we lie, and can technology be used to detect lying? Despite new technology, people lie for traditional reasons. For example: on dating sites, men tend to lie about their height and women tend to lie about their weight. The recordability of the Internet also changes how we lie. The use of the first person singular tends to go down the more people lie. He verified this in many spheres, such as how people describe themselves in chat rooms, and true versus false statements that the Bush administration made about 9/11 and Iraq. The effect was more pronounced when administration officials were answering questions than when they were reading prepared remarks.

EDITED TO ADD (6/11): Adam Shostack liveblogged this session, too. And Ross’s liveblogging is in his blog post’s comments.

EDITED TO ADD (6/11): Audio of the session is here.

Posted on June 11, 2009 at 9:37 AMView Comments

Low-Tech Impersonation

Sometimes the basic tricks work best:

Police say a man posing as a waiter collected $186 in cash from diners at two restaurants in New Jersey and walked out with the money in his pocket.

Diners described the bogus waiter as a spikey-haired 20-something wearing a dark blue or black button-down shirt, yellow tie and khaki pants.

Police say he approached two women dining at Hobson’s Choice in Hoboken, N.J. around 7:20 p.m. on Thursday. He asked if they needed anything else before paying. They said no and handed him $90 in cash.

About two hours later he approached three women dining at Margherita’s Pizza and Cafe. He asked if they were ready to pay, took $96 and never returned with their change.

Certainly he’ll be caught if he keeps it up, but it’s a good trick if used sparingly.

Posted on April 22, 2009 at 7:04 AMView Comments

In-Person Credit Card Scam

Surely this isn’t new:

Suspects entered the business, selected merchandise worth almost $8,000. They handed a credit card with no financial backing to the clerk which when swiped was rejected by the cash register’s computer. The suspects then informed the clerk that this rejection was expected and to contact the credit card company by phone to receive a payment approval confirmation code. The clerk was then given a number to call which was answered by another person in the scam who approved the purchase and gave a bogus confirmation number. The suspects then left the store with the unpaid for merchandise.

Anyone reading this blog would know enough not to call a number given to you by the potential purchaser, but presumably many store clerks don’t have good security sense.

Posted on January 19, 2009 at 1:23 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.