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Beware the Beware the Scam Scam

They are a staple of social media.

The latest that I received warned against a ‘new’ scam when you check into a hotel.  You’ve handed your credit card to the reception desk who take from it a deposit against which they will debit any extra charges for wildly overpriced miniature booze in the minibar or the laundry fee for your unmentionables.  You get your card back and go to your room.

Then the phone rings claiming to be the front desk.  Something went wrong when they had your credit card.  So sorry to trouble you, but could you kindly read the number to them?  And don’t forget those 3 little numbers printed on the back.

Of course you comply with this perfectly reasonable request.  The hotel is only trying to serve you.  For whatever reason, you display the intellectual acumen of a potted plant and send someone the wherewithal for an instant shopping spree at your expense.

It’s a scam!!!

It’s not the front desk.  It’s some devilishly clever villain who’s just called the front desk from an outside line, asked for a room number at random, and then put on their best front desk voice and away we go.

The warning message that you are sent normally ends with something along the lines of ‘I got caught; don’t get caught yourself and pass this on to all your friends.’  And by friends they mean the social media definition, which includes elderly relatives with incipient Alzheimer’s, the feller that changes the battery in your car and a whole slew of complete strangers that somehow ended up in your address folder ‘wanting to be your friend’.

If you are prepared to risk a permanent breach in relations, ask the person who sent the warning where exactly they got scammed.  They never have been.  ‘Got it from a friend’.  Who got it from a friend, who …

As a natural spoilsport you find your way to the Snopes page that tells you that this ‘new’ scam has been around since at least 2008 and although there are recorded cases, most hotels will not connect an outside caller to a room unless they can give the name of the occupant.

This does not, of course, protect you from a lackadaisical hotel switchboard operator or a scam artist who goes to the expense of renting a room in the hotel.

The Snopes evaluation is ‘mixed’.  It might happen, but it is unlikely.  And the scam does depend on the victim being naive enough to think that there is no risk at all in giving away their credit card information over the phone.

So are the scaremongers on the internet wrong to scream ‘scam!’?

Let us assume that they have a genuine altruistic interest in alerting their friends and acquaintances to danger.  Though I can’t help feeling there may be a tad of narcissism mixed in.  ‘Look at me, I’m clever.  I know about this scam which is more than you know.’

But is this a reliable way to protect people from being scammed?

If it was, we would need alerts for every scam going, without any fake warnings mixed in.  And this would need to be constantly updated as the ever-inventive scammers figure out new techniques.   Big job, though I seem to have a couple of people on my contact list who are determined to try exactly that.

But I am struck by the fact that many people get a scam alert (at umpteenth hand), never think to check it, and unthinkingly pass it on.  This seems to involve the same kind of gullibility that gets people scammed in the first place.

What you need is not someone else to tell you about every scam there is, but an attitude that allows you to sniff out scams, old and new, all by yourself.  Just plain scepticism, an ability to see through the scammer’s smooth-talking chatlines and realize that you are being asked to do something inherently unlikely, risky or downright dumb.  What Hemingway called ‘a built-in, shockproof, bullshit detector’.

You do believe me, don’t you?


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).