CALGARY -- The plot of Will Ferguson's award-winning novel 419 revolves around the fallout from a Nigerian scam that bilks a Calgarian out of all his possessions and drives him to suicide. It's a good read, but the scam appears to be rudimentary; it seemed to me that surely no one would fall for something so obvious.
Maybe some operators in China have been learning from their peers in Nigeria, because recent Internet scams have -- on the surface -- elevated the art.
Consider an experience I'm going through with a scammer that pretends to be the official website of a U.S.-based shoe manufacturer. The site is called thefryeboots.com/, but I'm warning you that you go there at your peril.
It appears to be a replica of the real company's website: thefryecompany.com/. If you open the two sites and compare them, the similarities are astonishing. Good job, scammers!
Both sites have the company's name prominently displayed in the upper left corner of the home page. Both have alluring photographs of young people, mostly women, wearing the product. The menu across the top of both is in the same font, and drop-downs function in exactly the same way.
The only obvious difference? The scam site has some of their boots on sale at "40 per cent off."
OK, so confession time. I happened across the fraudulent site, was fooled into believing it was the manufacturer's site and ordered a pair of boots. What happened next is what's really interesting.
Almost immediately, weird things started to happen. The first was that the order did not appear to process properly. When I contacted "the company," I received a reply asking for my order number. The return email had strange characters in the email field, not ones you'd expect to see from an American manufacturer.
Uh-oh. Then I got an email from a mysterious third party offering to mediate any dispute I might be having with the retailer. The next email came from the retailer, and it assured me not to worry about the incomplete transaction, "You can make an new order, then to payment, thanks!" (Odd wording and poor grammar for such a large company.)
A call to my Visa provider affirmed the charge had been applied against my account. After a Google search revealed thefryboots.com has been blacklisted, my bank advised me to cancel the order and demand a refund.
Then things got crazy. After several email exchanges in which I demanded a refund, the scammers became threatening. I received this email, and -- I kid you not -- it is word-for-word what landed in my inbox:
"If you refuse to pay, we will place your Personal Information and The Credit Card Information posted on the Internet, release to more than 1500 blogs,such as Facebook,Twitter,YouTube,LinkedIn,Blog.com,Myspace,Skyrock,Tuita,Tumblr,Wordpress,Blogger,MyLife,Badoo and so on,You must believe we have the ability!We have quite a lot of blog account!
"Please be careful!!!"
Such threats are not only darkly comical, they are also illegal. Of course, that doesn't mean much when the company is based in China and the server that routes their emails is based in Estonia.
The RCMP maintain the Canadian Anti-fraud Centre, which specializes in dealing with such activities. It's a busy place. Once I got through (there's a long queue), a very helpful agent described this case as a very interesting example.
My situation should eventually get sorted out, thanks to the ability to dispute the charge through Visa and the fact that I didn't dig myself in any deeper before discovering the scam. Still, it required me to cancel my card and take a number of other security measures to ensure the company had not accessed files on my computer.
It may end up being a cheap lesson for me, but a reminder that the Internet is an increasingly sophisticated jungle where skilled scam artists are increasingly adept at parting even reasonably sophisticated consumers from their money.
Getting it under control is a daunting challenge. But if the environment doesn't change for the better, there's good reason to believe the Internet may never fully realize its potential as a place of commerce. The idea of walking into a real store and walking out with goods in hand -- even at a premium price-- never seemed so attractive.
Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.