Understanding Computers
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  Scams, Shams and Other Shames
I recently received a letter, first class mail, from a something called El Gordo S.L. España informing me that I had won EU 195,800:00Cent Nearly CAD$300,000. For those who are unfamiliar with El Gordo (The Fat One), it's the Spanish National lottery with prizes up to $50 million. All I had to do to collect my prize was fax in a form with a lot of personal information about my bank accounts.
I'm not from Missouri, the "Show Me" state, but I had immediate doubts about the authenticity of this letter. For one thing, try as I might, I couldn't remember purchasing a ticket. With the enthusiasm of a boy detective, I swiftly hit the Internet to check out the information in the letter. The more I researched, the poorer I got.
I quickly found stern warnings about lottery scams on several Spanish lottery sites. I was a little surprised to see the word scams used in a Spanish site, but it was easy to understand in context. The copies of letters similar to mine made it even more clear.
Lottery scams have some common features. The letter I received was fairly typical. The letter came on fancy looking letterhead with an official looking rubber stamp on the bottom. Closer scrutiny revealed that the letterhead had been printed, at the same time as the rest of the letter, on an inexpensive inkjet printer. The text, which was written by someone unfamiliar with English, urged me to keep the news of my winnings confidential while some mix ups were cleared up. The liberal use of exclamation points assured me that the author had not studied technical writing with any of my professors.
Click here to see a copy of the actual letter.
The letter is in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF)
If you need it, you can download Acrobat Reader from Adobe
My internet research turned up the fact the address given for El Gordo S.L. España was on the grounds of the University of Malaga in the south of Spain. While the signature itself was indecipherable, the name of the signer turned out to be the head of the Computer Science Department at the U of M. It took less than five minutes to satisfy myself that someone was trying to scam me.
My investigation may not have revealed the name of the culprits, but it was a sobering example of the power of the World Wide Web (www). Within minutes I had the name, address and telephone number and occupation of a complete stranger, a person of some mild public prominence, who lived half a world away. The villains had most probably found my name and address on the web as well. Ever since my college days, I have posted my résumé, complete with name and address, on the web. This practice hasn't gotten me any job offers, but it has brought me some email from lost friends and the odd employment agency. Come to think of it, the friends were pretty odd too.
The shame is that the web has made old scams easier and more anonymous than ever before. A con artist can send the same letter to millions of potential victims with the click of a mouse. To many people, communications seen on a computer have a ring of authenticity that other mediums do not. Worse still, it is nearly impossible
How can you protect yourself from these unscrupulous cads? Remember that every new technology, from the Pony Express to the telephone, has given rise to new scams. Adopt a healthy scepticism when it comes to the internet, be it the www or email. Don't believe something just because it looks official, computers are great for making fancy looking documents. Remember that information and money are synonymous is this day and age, don't give information about your bank accounts to people or institutions that you have never dealt with in the past.
In the long run, the best protection against scams is an abundance of the sort of common sense that tells you that you can't win the lottery if you didn't buy a ticket.
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