Daily Archives: 5 January 2011

Aid workers need to help local staff avoid scams

Today, I got an email from a close friend in Kabul, a young Afghan woman who works in an Afghan federal ministry. She forwarded me an email from another Afghan colleague, telling her she had “won” a USA visa and that she had to pay $150 in order to finalize the process. She wanted to know if it was real.

Most every young Afghan woman I know is trying to get out of Afghanistan. They are not only terrified of what the withdrawal of coalition forces will bring; they are terrified of being forced into marriage, and forced to give up their jobs, being imprisoned in a stranger’s home with a family who treat female non-blood relatives as indentured servants – or worse. Afghan women are desperate and vulnerable — in a perfect position to be taken advantage of by someone promising exactly what they want to hear.

For someone with intermediate English skills, the email looked oh-so-real. For me, it was obvious that it was fake, but I’m a native English speaker, a pretty savvy Internet user, and an amateur researcher regarding myths and urban legends. I did my best to explain to my friend how to know when something like this is fake, as this email is. And it made me wish I was there to do a workshop for all of my Afghan colleagues, especially the women, to show them how to avoid email scams.

If you are working in aid, development or humanitarian affairs on site in a developing country, I hope you will consider doing a lunchtime workshop for your locally-recruited colleagues about online scams. Just 30 – 45 minutes would be so helpful. Talk about visa scams, inheritance scams and phishing. Even if locally-recruited staff are particularly savvy about knowing when something is a fraud, their family and friends may not be, and you would be helping them to help their family and friends avoid being taken advantage of.

I am the first to tell a friend that a warning they have posted in their Facebook status or an email warning they have sent to all their friends is a fake. It turned a couple of people into ex-friends – how dare I tell them such a thing is false? Where’s the real harm in forwarding these kinds of messages? Today, I was reminded yet again where the harm is — the very real harm.