In This Episode: Whether you “need” a monkey (wait… what?!) or “want” something for nothing, scammers are eager to take your money from you. Here are a few stories of those who fell for it and (more importantly) how you can reduce your chances of being conned.
023: Why Uncommon Sense Matters
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- Links: the Just How Stupid Are You? story of the foolish Korean man, and then the raid (with photos) in Lagos, Nigeria.
- The “bricks” of currency that come out of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, as illustrated here, have 1,000 bills in them. So, in the case of $100 bills, each such bundle would be worth $100,000.
- And the pic of the Hawaiian driver’s license the scammer used to paste in a photo and enough details to fake out Mr. Abrego, who is pictured right below that:
You probably have an intuitive feel of what I mean when talking about Uncommon Sense — that it is, essentially, common sense taken to the next level. And since you’re listening, you probably agree that the world needs more of it. There are, of course, others who actually disagree, that there’s something to be said for “dumb and happy” — going through life without having to worry about thinking too much. It seems really appealing. And, in fact, there are lots of people who are looking for the “dumb and happy” types.
Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.
Actually, there are many people actively looking for the dumb and happy types. Let me tell you a story about a guy who was just the sort of person they were looking for, and the kind of people looking for him. It’s from This is True’s newsletter number 1238. I called it “Monkey Business”:
“I needed a monkey,” says Don Abrego of Wyoming, Mich. “I needed to be different.” He found one online, and sent $400. Then the seller said he needed more money due to a flight delay, and vaccinations. So Abrego sent more money, then more, then more and more. In all, “About 20 Amazon gift cards ranging from a hundred to $400 and $500,” he said. Clerks where he bought the cards “tried to warn me almost every single time,” he admits. “I would say six times out of eight, they were like ‘you’re being scammed. Whatever you’re doing, you’re being scammed’.” Yet he continued to buy and send the cards anyway. He was being scammed. “I would say between $4,500 and $5,000,” he said, and he stepped forward as a way to warn others. He never got the monkey.
And my tagline for the story: “He doesn’t need a monkey: the seller made one out of him already.”
There’s a name for people who are looking for folks just like Abrego, who seems to not have common sense, and definitely doesn’t have Uncommon Sense. And the people who really, truly want to know folks like Abrego are called scammers.
This kind of con is pretty classic. Offer something of value for a low price. Once the mark sends the money, then have an at-least plausible-sounding reasons that more is needed. And more, and more.
Abrego even admits the store clerks were warning him it was a scam. What did he do with that information? He panicked, or the way I usually put it, he reacted first, and thought about it later. He panicked because he realized the clerk might be right, and he’s thrown a lot of money down the drain, and also didn’t get the monkey he “needed”. And throwing more money at the problem helped …how? Of course it didn’t help: all it did was hurt him more.
If he had thought about it after he was $800, $900 in — rather than the $400 he expected — he would have learned the same lesson that ended up costing him $4,500-5,000. If he was thinking, he would have realized that the place to buy a monkey is local, from someone who knows the animal and will make sure you’re compatible with it, not buying some random creature sight unseen. If he had common sense, he would have realized he was being scammed very early. And if he had Uncommon Sense in the first place? Well, he would have realized that a dude in Michigan doesn’t “need” a monkey!
And here’s a funny little detail that didn’t make the cut for the story: Abrego was smart enough to ask the seller, who claimed to be in Hawaii, to send him a copy of their I.D., and he did get a photo of a Hawaiian driver’s license in reply. And, apparently, he then resumed sending the gift cards after that, even though the license’s expiration date showed 2008.
Now here’s where a reporter who has Uncommon Sense comes in. He saw the picture and did a quick Google Image Search on it, and learned it’s simply a badly Photoshopped version of the fake I.D. prop from the movie “Superbad”, a 2007 teen comedy. And just with that description, it took me 10 seconds to find it online: I’ll put a photo of it on the Show Page. It really is “superbad.”
The story didn’t say how old Abrego is, but he did appear on TV to talk about this, and I’ll link to the station’s page that includes the video if you want to watch it, but he strikes me as about 30. Certainly old enough to know better, not someone that’s confused by senility or something, who are the typical scam targets not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t think as quickly as when they were younger, and tend to be more trusting, and less skeptical, because they didn’t grow up in the Internet era.
Anyway, I’ll put his photo — and the photo of the monkey he thought he was getting — on the Show Page. You decide which one is him, and which one’s the monkey.
This is far from the first time I’ve done a This is True story about scams. Usually, it’s the so-called Nigerian Scam, which has the same hallmarks as this one. You get a little money out of someone, and then a little more, and a little more, ramping up the amounts higher and higher.
One of those stories from back in 2012 had a South Korean man actually flying to South Africa to pick up his lottery winnings …even though he hadn’t entered any lottery in South Africa.
I titled that story “Just How Stupid Are You?” Well, here’s how stupid he is: he not only flew to South Africa, he took his daughter with him. How lazy are scammers? This lazy: they sent a taxi to the airport to collect their victims, and not only kidnaped the man and his daughter, but the taxi driver too, and held the Koreans for 10 million U.S. dollars in ransom. The Koreans only got out of it alive and with their bank account intact because the taxi driver escaped and called the police, who then rescued them. That story’s in my blog, and I’ll link to it on the Show Page.
In 2017, I wanted to run a story, but I couldn’t put it in the newsletter because it was guaranteed to trip spam filters. It was about a raid that Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission agents did in Lagos, and it was absolutely astounding how much American cash they found in this apartment. Not just stacks and stacks of $100 bills, but even bricks of $100 bills still in their U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing plastic wraps: brand new currency. In all, $43 million in cash — plus some British sterling and Nigerian currency. They provided pictures of what they found, and those are on my blog too. I’ll also link to that on the Show Page.
And when you see the astonishing photographs, just consider this: what’s pictured is merely the pile that they hadn’t gotten around to spending yet! Or otherwise “laundering” into some sort of investment vehicle.
Each of those “bricks” of currency you’ll see on the page come out of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing with 1,000 bills in them. So, in the case of $100 bills, each such bundle would be worth $100,000. And they have gigantic stacks of them. It’s incredible. And here’s the thing: it’s not at all unusual for the victims’ friends or family or bank to tell these people they’re being scammed. But they’re so greedy and wanting something for nothing — like winnings of a lottery they never entered — that they’re blind to the obvious truth. And every year, hundreds or thousands of people fall for it fresh, and lose millions of dollars. It’s not like this is something new: the Nigerian Scam is so old, they used to troll for their victims by sending faxes. Seriously! Well, the Internet sure did make their jobs easier.
Now think about that just a little: the victims get ensnared because want something for nothing so badly that they throw money at strangers who contacted them for a chance at getting it. Not a very effective realization of “something for nothing,” is it?!
No one is giving away money on the Internet to random obliviots. Not Bill Gates, not a Nigerian “prince”, not some lottery in a foreign country that you haven’t bought a ticket for. It’s a childish fantasy that some celebrity — or even more often, someone you’ve never heard of — has decided that you are so special that they’re going to give you money for no reason. And really, if they ever did decide to do that, they’re not going to need you to send cash to “cover the taxes” or the “shipping” or the vaccination of a monkey.
Now, I know just about all of you get this: you think you don’t need such a warning. Yet my father-in-law, who liked to get online to read the New York Times every morning, at one point something popped up on his screen that malware had been detected on his computer, and he needed to call a toll-free number to renew his anti-malware software.
Of course, they wanted access to his computer to “fix” it (translation: to install actual malware, since his computer really didn’t have any problems), and they wanted his financial information to pay for it. My father-in-law was not a stupid man — far from it. But he didn’t think as fast as he used to, and it sounded plausible, so he actually had his wallet out to give up account access, and had clicked the link the guy gave him, just as his son walked in, and realized what was happening, and quickly yanked the plug out of his computer just in time so that it didn’t load the software.
Of course, the scammer knew that he had failed, so he gave up, right? Wrong: my father-in-law got phone calls daily for weeks from the scammers, knowing they had someone they could fool once, so why not try again? From then to the day he died, my father-in-law refused to answer the phone unless he saw a name he knew on the caller I.D. That was his old Uncommon Sense kicking back in: he knew he was vulnerable, so he made sure the scammers never even had the opportunity to smooth-talk him.
As for Abrego, I hardly even want to draw the lesson here — it’s just so obvious to those who “get it.” Yet Abrego didn’t, and he’s far from unique: he was warned again and again by the clerks who sold him the gift cards. He just didn’t want to believe them, so he sent out more and more money to the scammer. The typical attitude is “I’ve already spent this much, I don’t want to lose it now! I’ll just send another five hundred!” Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.
The so-called “Nigerian Princes” say: “I’m a Nigerian Prince, and I have $12 million in U.S. American cash that I’m trying to smuggle out before I get assassinated by the junta government” or whatever. “And if you help me, I will give you some of this cash! Send money!” Well, if you apply any amount of sense to that, not even Uncommon Sense, you’ll ask yourself a question: why does he need money when there’s a ton of cash or other valuables sitting right there? And the answer is just as obvious: he doesn’t. It’s a scam. If you just want to send someone money, my address is PO Box 666, Ridgway CO 81432.
To wrap this up, I’m sure a lot of you, when hearing the story about Don Abrego and his aborted monkey acquisition, thought he was stupid. He probably actually isn’t. After all, he swallowed his pride and voluntarily went to a reporter to admit he had been conned — as the story said, “he stepped forward as a way to warn others.” That’s a good and noble thing to do: maybe if some of the people who added to that huge stack of cash in Nigeria had done that, the stack wouldn’t have been so damned tall. But when you strive for Uncommon Sense — you work to think first, and react later (if at all) — you’re much less likely to fall for a con.
The Show Page that has the pictures and links I mentioned is at thisistrue.com/podcast22, where you can also comment on how you got conned, or maybe realized in time that something you first thought plausible was a scam after all. I definitely read every single one of them.
I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.
Since this is a redo, comments start with those made on the original post — the dates are correct.
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