Books: A Point of View: Congratulations! | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Congratulations! : on scams, frauds and hoaxes

(S01E10, broadcast 6th and 8th April 2007)

"Playing tricks on you"

Congratulations! You have been chosen to hear a ten-minute speech by a professional Australian author. Yes, as a result of your application being successful, you are eligible to listen free of charge to an address by an experienced Australian writer and broadcaster whose computer skills bring him into contact on a daily basis with both in-coming and out-going e-mails. This author has noticed that no matter how often updated his computer security system is, he is still regularly bombarded with variations of the Mk II Nigerian scam. The in-coming e-mail of the Mk II Nigerian scam always starts with the word ‘Congratulations!’. Here, with no obligation on your part, is a precis of a Mk II Nigerian scam e-mail letter that this Australian author received yesterday.

Unlike earlier versions of the Mk II Nigerian scam approach which usually came from Nigeria, this one was datelined the Department of Lotteries and State Loans, Madrid. But like them it started with the word ‘Congratulations!’ before it went on to say, ‘our international marketing department works in conjunction with world residential white papers, humanitarian organizations, and the help of embassies and chambers of commerce in countries in Europe, the Pacific and Australia.’

But the suggestion that there could be other countries within Australia would have aroused our experienced Australian writer’s suspicion if it had not already been aroused by the phrase ‘our international marketing department’, which is standard in the Mk II Nigerian scam pitch, as if the institution in the headline also had a national marketing department, as if his suspicion had not already been aroused by the word ‘Congratulations!’.

The Australian writer was then informed that simply by existing he had won a prize in the third category. The implication that there must be a second and first category in which even richer prizes might be awarded was once again a standard corroborating device in a Mk II Nigerian scam sucker play. The third-category prize was announced as being 615,810 euros. That tagged-on ten was again a subtle touch, as was the information that there were sixteen other winners to be congratulated, all of whom had won the same amount, thereby sharing a total of seventeen times 615,810 euros, a very large sum for any institution to be giving away unless it was involved in funding the Millennium Dome or the London Olympics.

‘We ask,’ the letter asked, ‘that you keep this award away from public notice until your claim had been processed and your fund remitted to you, as this is part of our security measures.’ To get the fund remitted, it was merely necessary to contact Señor Carlos Alfonso by a certain date, otherwise the funds would be sent back to Ministry of Economics, presumably to swell the pot for the next disbursement staged under its ministerial auspices, which didn’t sound very economic at first blush, but there could be no quarrelling with the name and rank of the official in charge, billed as Dr Antonio Gomez, Vice President.

The doctorate wasn’t a bad touch and the Vice Presidency was masterly. Calling him President would have been too much, whereas calling him Vice President suggested that the Ministry of Economics might actually have been engaged in this philanthropic activity as part of some incidental arm of government policy, the kind of thing a Vice President would handle down there in Madrid, if not in Lagos or in a small basement flat somewhere beneath Brixton with an old sofa in the garden for the Ministers of Economics to relax in with a beer on a spring day.

Like most writers, whether Australian or otherwise, I’m pretty good at rearranging the facts on paper to make them more interesting. It’s a habit that can spread into real life if you aren’t careful and I would have made an accomplished fraudster except for one thing. I don’t like fraudsters. I never did like the idea of fooling people, maybe because I don’t like being fooled. I don’t even like practical jokes. To be a good sport about being done down, you need a lot more natural dignity than I possess. If it’s different for you, Congratulations!

The Mk II Nigerian scam might seem a comparatively mild form of fraud compared with the Mk I Nigerian scam. In the Mk I Nigerian scam, they want you to send them some money until Thursday so that they can free their blocked funds, from which they will give you back ten times as much money on Friday. If the flim-flam man is sensible enough to offer you a return of only twice as much, the scam might even work, and I was once defrauded of a heartbreakingly large sum by a fellow writer who was smart enough to offer no return at all. True to her word, she didn’t return my money either.

Later I found I was just the latest on an honour roll of sympathetic writers all over Europe that she had been stitching up for years. But at least she wasn’t after my identity. In the Mk II Nigerian scam, they’re after your details, and once they’ve got those, they’ve got you, and they can get going with the business of helping you to rob yourself. Some commentators regard fraudsters as romantic types more interesting than poor old plodding us. These commentators say that few of these frauds would work without our greed. Perhaps not, but none of them would work without the propensity of the fraudster to lie. Admittedly the liar sometimes doesn’t have to do much lying. In America before World War II one sharp character made a lot of money in a hurry by placing a classified ad that gave nothing but his post office box number and the instruction in capital letters: HURRY LAST CHANCE TO SEND IN YOUR DOLLAR. I might have sent in my dollar as a tribute to his simplicity.

Hoaxes work. It’s a good reason for not liking them. Virginia Woolf and her friends once dressed up as Arabs and successfully inspected the fleet at Spithead. They spent the rest of their lives giggling about their triumph but how hard was it? Evelyn Waugh and his friends invented a modern artist called Bruno Hat. Everybody fell for it, but why wouldn’t they? And speaking of Bruno Hat, is it any wonder that so many people have bought Joyce Hatto’s CDs under the impression that she is actually playing on them, when all the stolen performances are so good? William Boyd, whose fictional works I admire, recently promoted the works of a non-existent American painter. Boyd must have soon realized with a sickening sensation that people were going to fall for it because they had no reason not to.

In Australia during World War II, a couple of established poets invented the supposedly nonsensical works of a fictitious poet called Ern Malley and used them to discredit the modernist pretensions of the young editor who printed them. It never occurred to them that as writers of talent they were not in a position to suppose that they could deliberately write something perfectly meaningless. It probably did occur to them that the success of their venture would entail the ruination of the young editor’s career. They were talented men, but they were also sadistic, a characteristic inseparable from the hoaxer’s personality.

I was part of a hoax once. A bunch of us from Cambridge Footlights pretended to be a team of explorers, visited a local school and bored the sixth-formers for an entire evening with lectures about our adventures in the upper Brazilian hail forest. After the first half-hour I started feeling queasy, and had difficulty looking any of our dupes in the eye. But after an hour I could see what was really wrong with our plan. It was bound to work. There was no risk involved. The world runs on good faith. If all of us had to spend our whole time questioning the credentials of everyone we met, life would come to a halt. Later on, as a parent, I remembered the Brazilian hail forest when I faced that awful moment when a responsible father has to tell his daughter that she must never, ever get into the stranger’s car even when he swears blind that he has been sent to take her home.

I suppose there’s something to be said for debunking authority, and the celebrities who fell for television satirist Chris Morris’s assurances that there was a dangerous new drug called Cake on the loose were proving that we should all be more sceptical. But I think he was also proving that there is a streak of the self-congratulating fraud in every hoaxer, and I found it hard to admire him for his supposed coup. Rory Bremner I really do admire, but I wonder how well he has been sleeping if he actually did hoax Margaret Beckett into saying derogatory things about her colleagues. I have a newspaper quote from him right here. ‘I just rang up and said I was Gordon Brown.’ Yes, but suppose I just rang Rory up, said I was his bank manager, told him I had just handed all his money to a man from Nigeria who promised to quadruple it by Friday, and said Congratulations!?

Postscript

People who have had their houses robbed seldom feel charitable towards the robbers, and not long before I wrote this piece I had been defrauded by an acquaintance, so I was not feeling charitable towards fraudsters. I’m afraid the rancour broke through, and when I read the script again now, and especially when I listen to it on my website, I detect a note of hysteria. The text almost asks to be acted out, with rending of the garments and beating of the breast. Knowing myself to be a very bad actor, I usually tried to avoid, in these broadcasts, writing anything to be said outside the framework of my own character for more than a sentence at a time, but sometimes passion exerts so strong a grip that you go haywire.

What I like least about fraudsters is their belief (which always shows up when they are caught on camera) that they have a right to the hard-earned money of other people, either because the other people are too stupid to be left unpunished or because they themselves are working quite hard as they duck, weave, fiddle and cheat. If we could maintain a sense of proportion, we would realize that whatever punishment we dream of for the small-time operator who talks the old lady out of her nest-egg should be scaled up many times for the Bernie Madoff types who rip off millions from more successful citizens. (And of course Bernie Madoff is less deserving of retaliatory torment than even one wife-beater.) But our self-deceiving mental mechanisms come into play, and we ourselves start believing that the more successful citizens were asking for it. We would not be telling ourselves that if we were one of them. We would be telling ourselves that what the big-time operator needs is his yacht, jet, houses and cars all rolled into a bundle and shoved up his rear end. Almost always, violence is in one’s mental picture of a suitable reply: the tip-off that fraud is in itself a violent act. As I write this, my computer is working properly, but a man keeps ringing up to assure me that it is malfunctioning and that he is ready to call on me and fix it. I would like to meet him at the door, let him in and chop off both his hands. But I won’t, because I belong to a culture that has got beyond retributive tantrums. I belong to it, even if he doesn’t. So I think I’ll just shoot him.