October 30, 2006

The IQ-drop factor – an anatomy of a scam

When money is involved, people seem to suddenly drop at least 50 IQ points. This is probably the reason that so many scammers still exist (and even flourish) amongst us. No, this is not about scamming agents this time but about real life scammers :p

In Sri Lanka at the moment, Seagull Softwares (yes, indeed, they called themselves "softwares" :p) is major news. This is because some guys from Seagull Softwares ran a Ponzi scam on a lot of people over here and absconded with a boatload of money. There are varying accounts as to how much actually was taken but one of the figures thrown around is 300 million rupees (which is about US$ 3 million) – not a bad haul.

The scam itself worked like this. These people say that they’ve got some sort of BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) venture and that you could earn money in your spare time by helping them do data entry. To get a job, you have to buy a slot at US$ 65 a year. Each slot is supposed to pay you back $40 a month if you did the assigned work. You can get as many slots as you want. The work? Apparently, you have to sign into their server and you get a job per slot. The job is basically a keyword (or a set of keywords) and you have to go online and find information relating to the given keywords, compile it all into an Excel spreadsheet and upload to their servers.

I first heard about this from a friend of mine. I was suspicious since I don’t like "jobs" where you have to pay to work. My friend told me that he knew somebody who was doing it and had already recovered their investment within two months. I still didn’t like it. Why would anybody pay you to find information via Google when they could do the same thing themselves? A few days later, my Mom told me that there were relatives in our family who were doing the same thing and earning a fair amount of money because they’d bought 10 slots. There was apparently another relative who’d bought a 100 slots (or some such large number) and was employing other people to do the work for him. He was paying them about $250 per month (on 10 slots I believe) and keeping the other $150 for himself. So again, good business and apparently paying well.

My Mom was like, "why don’t you do this too?" I said that nothing which sounded easy ever was. Her response was the motherly equivalent of a raspberry :p She wanted to know how come there are so many people making money if it was a scam. I had no response. I went online and checked and there were just two entries that I could find which talked about these people and even there, they were asking for more information rather than enlightenment. The website (for there was a website at that time) was rather crudely done and was registered by some guy in India. I decided that I wanted nothing with them.

Last week, the news broke. Apparently the police were investigating an Internet-based scam operation which sounded a lot like Seagull Softwares. But no name was given and no details. Yesterday the papers were full of it. I went online and suddenly there are lots of sites, all talking about how they were defrauded or how their relatives were defrauded and how they’ve lost everything.

I feel for these people. Some of them are retired pensioners who used their savings in the hope of making more money. Others are schoolkids who begged or borrowed the money. There are people who’ve invested millions hoping to run sub-contracting businesses. I feel sorry for them but I just can’t help wondering, what is it about the human race which makes you lose sight of everything when some money is waved in front of your face? They say that a crocodile’s eyes close when it opens its mouth (this is part of some folk-tale – not sure about the accuracy of the statement :p) – people seem to be like that. People’s eyes close when their mouths open wide in greed.

After the whole Seagull Softwares debacle, there seem to be new scams and new twist rising out of the ashes. There is a mysterious organization which says that it is trying to gather information about the victims of the scam and wants all their personal details but nobody seems to know who they are. They seem to be very insistent that people send them information on the sites where the scam is discussed. There’s also talk of all the scammed people getting together to have a meeting in front of the Seagull offices today. Others have all sorts of weird theories as to why (and who) perpetrated the scam.

Sure there is a lot of brouhaha. But unfortunately, I have a feeling that a week from now, this will be forgotten and the same people who fell for this one will be lining up for the next great thing. Such is the nature of humanity.

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Posted by Fahim at 8:11 am  |  No Comments

October 27, 2006

The return of scummy scammers

There are some people who would do anything to part you from your money. They would even go so far as to warn you about other people who might try to mislead you about the first bunch of people :p It’s kind of interesting to watch as an exercise in misdirection. However, it is also alarming when you consider the fact that those not of a suspicious bent (or of a more gullible persuasion) could actually fall victim to these lying, cheating scum.

Who am I talking about? Scammer agents, of course 🙂 First, there was the Top 20 worst agents list. Then there was Barbara Bauer kicking up a ruckus about AbsoluteWrite.com and getting the plug pulled on them back in May. Now it looks as if the scammers are taking a different tack – they are banding together to bilk more gullibles of their money and at the same time, appear legitimate by creating their own association of agents. This new association, named the International Independent Literary Agents Association appears to be unable to count, let alone represent anyone. They have a Top Ten literary agent list which has only nine agencies listed :p And guess who heads the list? The self-same Ms. Barbara Bauer Ph. D. who was the star in the AbsoluteWrite drama and who also appears prominently in the Top 20 worst agents list.

Of course, the IILAA has lots of stuff to say in their defence 🙂 According to them, there are a lot of hate sites out there that are intent on besmirching the names of agents. (Of course, their message would be more accessible to most people if they took out that annoying background and the text which melds into the background – but then again, they’re professionals, so what do I know? :p) Basically, the people who investigate agents and ferret out the scammers are doing so because they have an ulterior motive. They apparently have an agenda. Of course, the IILAA never states what this agenda might be. They certainly do know how to get people’s paranoia working. Maybe they should work in political propaganda rather than spending 20-30 years on being agents and not selling a single book?

Yes, they do have a Coming Soon page where they say they’ll list the "newest sales by their members" – I’m really waiting on that one, good fiction is hard to find these days :p

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Posted by Fahim at 3:37 pm  |  No Comments

October 9, 2006

Codes, Concepts and Breakouts

We watched "The Da Vinci Code" a couple of days ago. I am not going to go much into the movie itself since everybody and their unborn child has probably seen it by now. Or heard about it. Or been urged by their neighbour’s grandmother to go see it. Or read about it in the newspaper. Or something. You get the picture 🙂

Now Laurie had already read the book. I hadn’t. So the movie was all new to me – especially since I hadn’t been interested enough in the book to learn what the story was about :p What did strike me while watching the movie was that the story was almost a poster-child for Donald Maass’ "Writing the Breakout Novel" 🙂 Maybe I’m reading more into it (pun intended) than I should. But I’m reading "Writing the Breakout Novel" at the moment and Dan Brown appeared to follow Donald Maass’ advice very carefully. Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps not. So the first thing I did was to check for any connections between Dan Brown and Donald Maass. Don’t think I found any direct connections or references to Brown being influenced by Maass’ book. So then, I looked up the publication dates for the two books and Maass’ book had been out for 2-3 years before Brown’s book was published. So I guess it certainly is possible.

Or maybe it’s just coincidence. Maybe bestsellers do follow a formula. I have no idea 🙂 But what I did notice was that Brown raised the stakes continually as Maass advices in his books. You start with a simple murder, then Langdon gets called into take a look, then we learn that he’s a suspect in the murder, then he learns that there is a conspiracy behind it and he has to go on the run and so on. The stakes just keep rising and you are swept away in the tide of rising excitement.

Then there are the characters themselves. There’s Langdon’s claustrophobia, which is introduced almost as soon as the story starts. So you start sympathizing with him. Then you are introduced to Sophie and you learn that she does not believe in God. You start wondering about her. Then you learn that her whole family died when she was a child and you begin to realize perhaps she blames God for it. So you again sympathize with the character and are invested in their quest and what becomes of them.

There are many other points to ponder about how the story (in the movie) follows Maass’ advice closely. It probably is coincidence but then again, it’s a nice mini-not-quite-conspiracy theory of my own to say that Dan Brown wrote his bestseller by following Maass’ advice to the letter :p Or maybe, it just points to the fact that you can write by numbers as long as you know which numbers to follow 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 6:33 am  |  1 Comment