Of Cons and Scams

by Prema Jesuthasan

When I was 25, I dated a conman. Of course, at the beginning of our relationship, I did not know he was a conman. We had met in person when I was 18, and he seemed decent. He dropped out of sight for a few years and then contacted me out of the blue.

The attention he paid me went to my head. I had not dated before he came back into my life, so my naivety made me an ideal target. He was a consummate liar, quick to come up with smooth explanations if ever questioned.

I am not a blatant liar, so I did not recognise it in him. It took me several months to come to my senses and realise everything he had told me was a lie.

He had “borrowed” money from me, claiming he would return it once he received backpay from his boss, but that was yet another lie. He was actually unemployed. By the time I discovered he was a liar and cheat, he had been introduced to my colleagues as well as people my father knew.

I was unaware that he was telling all these people he could get them sound equipment or household electrical appliances at low prices because of his contacts, and they had given him money upfront. Of course, those equipment or appliances were non-existent.

I could have taken comfort in the fact that I was not the only person he lied to and cheated, but instead I felt guilty for letting him into their lives. He, of course, felt none of that guilt.

You would think that experience would have made me suspicious and wary of any possible cons or scams, but the ways in which unscrupulous people try to con the general public are constantly evolving, and my awareness sometimes lags.

A couple of years ago, I received a call via WhatsApp from a number that used the logo belonging to my cellphone service provider. My instinctive response was to trust the logo, so I answered the call. It turned out to be a scammer who claimed that the company was offering two months of free phone service.

He told me that all I had to do was give him the TAC (transaction authorisation code) that had been sent to my phone. I know that the TAC is never to be shared with anyone, so that set off warning bells in my brain. I declined to do so and hung up, narrowly escaping that scam.

Another time, I received a call from someone purporting to be from the post office, saying I had a parcel to be claimed. This was around Christmas. Since I had been ordering gifts for people, I was expecting packages, but I realised the post office has better things to do than call people individually, so I once again hung up.

I now do not answer my phone if I don’t recognise a number, but these experiences have taught me that I constantly need to be alert.

People who con and scam their way through life are called con artists for a reason. Scamming is an artform to them, a skill they carefully hone over the years. They work hard at perfecting that skill, sometimes harder than they would at an honest job.

Scammers prey on people’s innocence, naivety and tendency to trust. They take advantage of these virtues, seemingly with no feelings of guilt.

The internet has become the playground of criminals looking for ways to dupe people out of their life savings through romance, get-rich-quick schemes or fake job offers. And these days, AI (artificial intelligence) has become a valuable tool for scammers. I have learned that if something sounds too good to be true, it is fake!

According to Malaysian police, as reported by Business Today last month, over 30,000 online scams were reported before the end of 2023, with people losing over RM1.3 billion in total. That is an astounding figure, and it explains why the scammers keep hunting for victims.

The majority of online advertisements are not vetted. They are designed to tantalise with extravagant claims, like those which state people can earn high interest rates by investing in foreign currencies. It is natural to believe they are authentic, because most of us don’t spend our lives lying, and we therefore tend to trust what others tell us.

But now I am aware that I cannot afford to trust without verification, which means I need to investigate these claims using reliable sources.

Often, scammers pretend to be figures of authority, like a police officer or someone from the tax department. People have a tendency to either respect or fear authority figures, so this ploy appears to be effective, especially in places where standing up to those in positions of power can be risky.

If I receive a phone call or message from what seems to be a legitimate company or government body, I know I have to search for the actual phone number, not rely on one given to me by the person calling or emailing me.

I don’t like being cynical and distrustful, but I would rather be cautious and suspicious than risk losing any (more) of my hard-earned money. As Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter books warned, “Constant vigilance!” This has become my mantra.