VHeadline editor & publisher Roy S. Carson writes: When, a few days ago, an email from a high-profile Venezuelan diplomat of my acquaintance plopped into my inbox, I opened it routinely expecting it to contain some off-the-record remarks, or pointers, to Venezuela's ever-evolving mish-mash of intriguing foreign policy.
But ... very much to my surprise, the ambassador was telling me that he had been left stranded in Dundee, Scotland, where (according to the message) he had (plausibly) been attending an urgent Seminar.
The ambassador said that he had lost his wallet, his Blackberry and vital documents, including his return ticket. He added that he had reported the circumstances to the police and that he had only just got access to the internet and was writing to me in English (rather than his native Spanish) since the UK keyboard was different!
Anyway, the gist of the email was that he was stranded and without immediate funds for survival. He asked if I could send him $1,800 by Western Union to help pay his hotel bill and sort things out. He was kind enough to give me the address to which the Western Union transfer should be sent -- 101 Broughty Ferry Rd, Dundee, DD4 6JE, Scotland -- and asked me to email him the money transfer control number (MTCN) so that he could pick it up as soon as possible.
Concerned and willing to help a friend in trouble, I checked out the address on Google and called the Craigtay Hotel at the given address in Dundee to ask to speak with the ambassador by name ... "Sorry Sir, there's no one of that name staying with us!"
Whoa! The ambassador doesn't usually travel incognito...
That's when suspicion set in! I checked the return-to address on the email and quickly found it not to coincide with the private email address the ambassador always uses to contact me. Anyway ... how come the ambassador didn't first contact the Venezuelan Embassy in London? Yes, I know they're a pretty useless bunch at 1 Cromwell Road, opposite the Natural History Museum and diagonal to the Victoria and Albert ditto, but...
I picked up the phone again and dialled directly to the ambassador's own office in a foreign capital (which for security reasons we need not detail here!) where his PA told me he was in a staff meeting and, unfortunately, couldn't immediately speak with me. I told her of the circumstances and she assured me that he was physically there at the embassy ... certainly NOT in Dundee. Could I forward the email urgently to him? Certainly! Done! (...and to his correct email address!)
Circumspectly, I phoned to the Dundee police department. If a fraudster was operating on their patch, they'd surely be interested in catching the crook? Maybe, journalistically, I could cooperate to set up a "sting" operation? A thoroughly disinterested voice on the phone told me I'd have to file a report elsewhere ... and it didn't sound as though any action would be taken this side of Christmas 2020!
Flabbergasted ... after all we're supposed to be vigilant against cyber crime, aren't we? ... I put in a follow-up call to a regional Chief Inspector who I know to be a get-up-and-go sort of copper. Yes, he'd set the wheels in motion, alert Special Branch (the UK FBI) and the Fraud Division ... I'd get a call-back, pronto, especially since a high-profile Venezuelan diplomat was seemingly involved.
Back at the ranch, within minutes, I did, indeed, get a call from an "Accredited Financial Investigator" at Police HQ plus a follow-up email in which I was advised:
I can confirm that the email you received will be a scam and one which primarily originates from overseas. Organised criminal gangs send out speculative email messages in the hope that the recipient will respond. They will then look to elicit personal information and bank security details. Unfortunately as these emails originate outside of the UK we are severely restricted as to the enquiries we can make to track the perpetrators. Once personal details are held for an individual they can be bought and sold on the illegal information market. This means that individuals maybe subject to multiple scam attempts. We advise everyone to be vigilant to these attempts and question the information they receive. As you will recall I specifically advised you not to enter into any further communication with the originator and under no circumstances try and set up a sting, as you say and please do not send any money.The general portent of subsequent conversations with UK "law enforcement" officers was that the email I received would be added to a mountain of similar electronic bumph being collected by the City of London Police but they weren't able to do anything in this specific case since (according to officialdom) a crime had "not yet been committed"!
Anyway, it was made patently clear to me that any effort to catch the perpetrator(s) was a waste of time since the criminals were operating "primarily from overseas" and therefore outside of UK police jurisdiction....
As a last resort I called Western Union and was told that an immediate STOP would be put against any financial transfers to the ambassador's name at the given hotel address in Dundee. I was advised to inform the police but was told there was little else that Western Union could do under the circumstances...
Circles, running around in...
As the innocent party, the ambassador's name has been used in an attempted cybercrime but to all appearances UK law enforcement isn't equipped ... or interested enough ... to deal with even ONE documented occurrence of an attempt to fraudulently scam $1,800 using the name of a high-profile Venezuelan ambassador.
Which beggars the question: Is there any prospect of them getting off their butts to do anything when other mere mortals are involved?
Roy S. Carson
Dear Mr. Carson,
The same thing happened to me as you describe happened to the ambassador. I thought you were going to write that his Facebook account had been hacked because mine was.
Against my better judgement, I joined Facebook half-heartedly this winter but never told anyone so had only 3 or 4 "friends". These were people who stumbled onto the fact that I had registered there. I received an email from Facebook not long after I registered that my inactive account had been activated and they assumed it was I who re-activated it. It wasn't, so I went to the page and found that there was an email there, allegedly from me, to one of the "friends" saying that I was stranded in England with no money and could she wire me some. Fortunately, she was suspicious and didn't send any. I was irate and looked for instructions of how to disappear from Facebook and take all traces of my existence with me. I think I succeeded but I'm not sure.
I wonder if any of us mere mortals are any match for the cyber-underworld? I know I'm not.
A most interesting commentary, Mr. Carson.