By Vyt Karazija
Her eyes are alight and she is suffused with a joy that I have rarely seen before. Her usually stoic nature is transformed by the radiance that today illuminates her spirit, spilling on to those around her. She has worked very hard for years, rarely complaining, and constantly dreams of being able to support her parents on a distant island in the archipelago. Today, that dream has come true.
“I’ve won a car!” she cries, pulling out a plastic token carefully wrapped in flimsy paper printed with complicated directions. I had heard of those ubiquitous promotional-prize deals which seem to abound here in Bali. I had actually seen ads from the Tango people breathlessly pushing the usual line – you know the ones: “Buy our product, win a car!” But with one car as first prize, its coveted token hidden in one of perhaps five million packets of product, the chances of winning are vanishingly small.
Even so, someone has to win, and it seems that my friend has struck it rich against all the odds. I congratulate her; no one deserves a win more than her. “But I haven’t told you yet,” she goes on, “It’s not just one, but two cars! I can’t believe it!”
I can’t believe it either, but for me it’s a species of disbelief that comes from cynicism, not overwhelming excitement. As she tells me about finding the Tango car token last night, and another winning one in a separate purchase of a different product this morning, my internal radar begins beeping. She’s on a roll, telling me of her plans to sell one of the little Nissan March cars she has won and giving the proceeds to her parents, and keeping the other here in Bali to generate rental income. My “something’s wrong” detector won’t shut off as I calculate the odds of winning not one but two major prizes. “Ring them,” I advise. “Find out what you have to do now to collect your prize.”
An hour later, I get an excited message. “It’s all real,” she says. “They will deliver the car as soon as I do the registration transfer!” She then diffidently asks if I could lend her Rp3.7 million “for the registration transfer,” but assures me that everything is completely safe, because the mysterious “they” will return the money as soon as the car is delivered. “Then I can use that money for the second car’s transfer, and give it back to you when that one is delivered.”
Uh oh. Nigerian scam with a twist. I don’t want to rain all over her parade, but the weather is not looking good right now. I try logic. “Why can’t they pay the “transfer” themselves if they’re only going to give it back to you?” She tells me they explained that doing it that way would not be legal. Oh, right. But I press on. “If the car is new, why do they want you to “transfer” the registration?”
She tells me they say it is a police requirement. “Have you called the police to ask?” I enquire. “Of course! They encouraged me to do it!” I am momentarily stumped, but then ask her what number she called. “Oh, it’s right here on their instruction page, where it says ‘Call Police to confirm correct registration-transfer fee.” Ah, right, very clever.
So because she’s excited and happy, and wants to hear nothing from the King of Negativity that might spoil that, I make a deal with her. I’ll advance the money, but only if my solicitor talks to her first, examines the deal and approves it. I know her – she is very intelligent, honest, caring and a workaholic – but she is also extremely stubborn and independent. If I refuse her request, she will simply go elsewhere to get the forward payment, then run aground on the deadly Nigerian reefs as so many have done before her.
Luckily, she agrees to meet my solicitor, and I sit sadly watching while that worthy explains the nature of the scam to her, shattering the dream of financial independence for both her and her parents in the process. It is a necessary and brutal surgery, and one that requires a finesse better administered by my solicitor than me. I listen as she describes how scam artists buy biscuits or confectionery in bulk, then professionally re-pack them using counterfeit bags. The bogus tokens – most of them “winners” – are slipped into the bags before they are sealed, ready for ecstatic purchasers to find and get suckered into pre-paying “delivery,” “registration” or “transfer” fees to facilitate a major prize which, of course, never arrives.
Those who are cautious are encouraged to check with the “authorities,” whose number is conveniently printed on the accompanying instructions. The number is, of course that of the fraudsters themselves, who explain in official tones that declining to make the requested payment will mean instant forfeiture of the “prize.” Very few use their own resources to find and call the customer service number of Tango, or any other company being unwittingly used as a front for these crooks. Very few think to question the “police” number printed, because this is Indonesia, where the social norm is never to challenge those in authority.
Most are in borderline economic circumstances, which makes them easy prey for the heartless bastards who care nothing for their victims, thinking only to enrich themselves at the expense of others. They operate with impunity, apparently safe from police interference, and make billions while doing so.
At the end of the meeting, after living through 12 hours of sleepless joy and the sudden shock of betrayal, I am worried that my friend will be faced with months of regretful contemplation, the annoying mosquito of “what might have been” buzzing constantly around her mind. But no. She is calm and stoical and simply smiles and says, “Thank you so much. I have learned a big lesson today.”
And after watching how she handled this little episode, so have I.