A scam targeting job-seekers in India

I’ve written about the Nigerian 419 scam before, but few know that India is now one of the largest exporters of counterfeit medicines to West Africa. As India becomes an economic superpower, there will invariably be a number of unscrupulous individuals who attempt to get rich quick by fraudulent means. Some of our con artists have set up elaborate schemes that are truly first-rate too.

Recently, an acquaintance in India who has over five years experience in the financial sector, applied for a job advertised on one of the major online job search sites. He thought he was applying to Barclays Group in the United Kingdom, one of the world’s largest financial institutions. The job ad asked applicants to submit a resume, and once he did he received an offer letter.

He thought it was odd that he had been given an offer letter without even having to interview, but he was soon elated with the salary mentioned in the offer letter. After he sat down and looked at the letter carefully, he felt the offer was too good to be true, so he shared with a couple of his friends, including me. I’m reproducing the offer letter along with some of the obvious warning signs with his permission and as a benefit to other potential job-seekers. I have no doubt that Barclays is unaware of the fraud committed in their good name, and I’m also refraining from mentioning where the job ad was posted, because it has subsequently been taken down at the request of concerned individuals.

Page 1 of fraudulent job offer

If you take a look at the letter, apart from the use of anachronistic phrases and grammatical errors common in South Asia (such as incorrect use of prepositions, unnecessary capitalization, and official-sounding mumbo-jumbo), the scammers have created, what at least at a cursory glance, looks like a real job offer. Plus, the fact that this letter was not unsolicited makes it somewhat reasonable, right?

On further inspection, there are couple of immediate give-aways to the deception. First, I’ve never heard of a job offer that was not addressed to any particular individual. Had the scammers been more talented they would have personalized the fraudulent letter. In addition, it seems odd that there would be a document labeled “soft copy of your job offer document.” A real soft copy would be nothing more than a scanned or faxed version of a printed offer letter.

But perhaps, the biggest loose end is the exorbitant salary being offered. It is simply too good to be true and a real job offer would only have matched prevailing wages in the City of London. A five year contract for a job paying 9,500 pounds per month, various allowances, free travel and amenities in the midst of global financial turmoil is ridiculous for an entry to mid-level position even if the person had been grilled in multiple interviews!

Page 2 of fraudulent job offer

Notice also that there is actually no mention of duties to be performed, an actual description of the job, or the name of the manager who the applicant is to report to. Finally, a quick search reveals that there is no Dr. Murphy Fredrick listed with Barclays.

Page 3 of fraudulent job offer

So, if these fraudsters weren’t offering anyone a real job, how were they asking for money? This was where they showed a bit of sophistication. They set up a fake barclaysinsurance.co.cc  website which looked a lot like the legitimate group.barclays.com website to allay fears. They subsequently took down the site after, what I a suspect was a successful conclusion to their operations.

Their scam was intricate in that there was no actual mention of direct transfer of funds in the cover letter. What the fraudsters did was that they set up a website for a fictitious travel and immigration specialist called Charlton Chambers. This was not mentioned in the “offer letter” but in the accompanying email. All transactions for visas and travel by successful candidates had to be handled by this company which had listed phone and fax numbers (+44-7024027790, 44-7024063929, 44-7024041676, 44-7960554113, 44-8704953788). Search for these numbers and you will find that they are associated with a number of other job offers, hinting at the widespread nature of this fraud. In any case, candidates were reassured that they would be reimbursed upon joining Barclays in the United Kingdom. I noticed that the website for this fictitious company went down in mid-July before a bulk of applicants were supposed to have joined. I am sure it has mushroomed elsewhere.

This last step might seem like it needed a lot of work in order to siphon money from hapless jobseekers, but because of the indirectness of the approach it was also more likely to succeed with sophisticated, but desperate professionals.

I hope people caught on to the scam. But I’m also wondering what other devious plan these fraudsters are currently hatching to prey on desi aspirations.

Footnote: Variations of this scam set up possibly by the same group or copycats send job offers on behalf of Vodafone, Pfizer, Standard Chartered Bank, Shell, “Hilton Hotel London”, Virgin Atlantic, Honda Motors, Marks and Spencer PLC, Gucci Company UK, The Bentley Hotel, Nissan Motors, Hyundai Motors UK, Hewlett Packard, and Qatar Airways London.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

A bargain

On my way back from work, I grabbed the pile of uncollected envelopes and catalogs from the mailbox and headed inside. I quickly sorted through the mail, but one particular package buried inside the others stuck out. It was a small package approximately six inches by four inches with a colorful wrapper. I looked for a sender’s address but could find none on the envelope. The address matched mine, but had been sent to “Ms. Lonnie Paris or Current Resident”.

Lonnie Paris? Wasn’t that the name of former tenant? “Probably junk mail,” I thought to myself. But I also thought I had every right to take a look at this packet before discarding it. I was, after all, the current resident.

Printed on the bottom left corner of the envelope was the photograph of a couple. The dark-haired woman on the right must have been in her forties. She was wearing scarlet lipstick and her lips were parted slightly to reveal a row of pearly-white teeth. I could not make out what she was reading, but she was looking at the piece of paper in front of her with purpose. The man, who looked at least twenty years older, was peering through eyeglasses which were slightly tilted to the left, at the same piece of paper. His hair was completely grey and he had a much more grave expression on his face. He had sad, cloudy eyes and I noticed the furrows which the worn nose pads made on his sagging skin.

I looked at the text neatly printed above the couple. “Convenient Pre-Purchase. Be sure to see your Special Invitation enclosed.”

I casually tore the envelope open. A small brochure with a photograph depicting a forest in fall colors  dropped out and fell on the floor. I picked it up and started reading.

“Imagine the peace-of-mind from knowing that it’s all been taken care of! This is the wisdom of making arrangements before-need or as needs arise. Interest-free financing means you can make this meaningful purchase now. Pay in easy monthly installments and own the property that you’ve always wanted”

Property I always wanted? I turned the page and kept reading.

“We’re proud to present our introductory cemetery space pre-purchase program to those who deserve special treatment. Space is reserved only for customers like you who have prequalified.  And rest assured – our offer is backed by a 100% lifetime guarantee.”

Just above these words was a photograph of the same lady who was on the envelope. She was dressed in black.

“We don’t want you to miss out on limited-time offer and very soon one of our experienced representatives will visit you to help you make the right decision.”

I closed the brochure. As I was about to trash it, I noticed an additional offer on the back cover.

“Mention our brochure and receive a 15% discount on your purchase at Bed Bath and Beyond.”

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Wrathroom: the perils of the modern bathroom

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine who had arrived in the American Midwest for the first time decided to freshen up by taking a shower in my bathroom. Minutes later, after he came out, I noticed that he was shivering like a skinny, wet cat. Puzzled, I asked him what was wrong. He responded that he had showered in cold water because he couldn’t figure out how to get the hot water turned on. At the moment, I was certainly taken aback because I thought getting water of the right temperature on in my bathroom was pretty straightforward. I was also mildly amused because this acquaintance was highly-educated and came from a well-to-do-family in India.

On further reflection, I’ll be the first to admit that figuring out how to use a bathroom with which you’re unfamiliar can be quite challenging.

It wasn’t always that way. The Romans with their spas at Bath and the Harappans with their intricate drainage systems were notable exceptions, but for the majority of human existence, bathrooms were essentially roofless and without walls. When nature called, it also invited. Even today, for many, lack of adequate sanitation is a medieval scourge afflicting a modern world.

For the longest time, however, no one had access to proper sanitation or any systematic knowledge of microbiology. That all changed in the 1800s, and the water closet owes a great deal to developments by Victorians such as Thomas Crapper. Quite soon, a bathroom which was part of the main section of the home became a norm all around the world.

That was fine. But since there were relatively few innovations which added to the functionality of washbasins, toilets, and bathing facilities, over time bathroom fittings started to evolve towards different perceived standards of aesthetics.

The results are a bewildering number of different devices doing only a handful of pretty basic jobs.

Because I travel quite a bit, I constantly find myself having to deal with many different kinds of contraptions. In hermetic hotel bathrooms, I’ve often had to push a knob, pull a lever, rotate a wheel (clockwise or counterclockwise), turn a dial, push a button, flip a switch, kick a latch, or tug a handle to get the water turned on in a shower. Passing through airports and rest-stops, I’ve come in contact with devices as diverse as water sprouts, gooseneck faucets, pipes sticking out of walls, and fountain nozzles pouring water at awkward angles into washbasins often shaped like bowls, fish, boats, crates or barrels.

Well, I don’t know what the experts think, but here is how I feel: I’m sure these bathrooms are gorgeous, but I can always go to a museum after using a functioning one. When I enter a bathroom, ten times out of ten I do so with the intention of using it. High art does not come to me.

I get the feeling that I may be in the minority these days.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

The psychology and the physics of stampedes

Why bother to think about stampedes?

As we know, even poorly-organized humans in groups have tremendous capacity for destruction of property and life. The raw power of collectivism has the innate potential to take a chaotic turn in the fury of the mob and the panic of the stampede. And by appreciating the fact that individuals think and act differently when in groups than when alone, calamities can be understood better and possibly averted.

Just before dawn on September 30, 2008, events unfolded at the Chamunda Devi temple in Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort that left a tragic trail of death and destruction in its wake. That morning approximately 25,000 Hindu devotees approached the temple to mark the first day of Navratri. As soon as the door of the temple opened, there was a frenzied scramble of devotees trying to get inside. Within moments a stampede ensued in which, by most accounts, close to 250 pilgrims lost their lives and more than 400 others suffered various injuries. Agonizingly, this stampede was the fourth lethal one at a religious gathering in India that year. Just in the previous month, over one hundred pilgrims died in a stampede at the Naina Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh.

Why are locations in India particularly prone to human stampedes? A quick glance at a list of all the major stampedes that have resulted in a loss of life has revealed that most occurred at religious gatherings. Some of the most revered sites in Hinduism are in remote locations on hills and mountains. Accessibility has no bearing on the auspiciousness of a site and devotees take the physical strain of getting there in their stride as part of part of the pilgrimage.

Unfortunately, even in the most-accessible of locations there is always a possibility of things turning ugly. At stadiums, trained crowd-managers at stadiums look out for potential troublemakers. But even a simple spark can turn into a riot. The situation is substantially more complex at a remotely-located religious site, especially during peak pilgrimage seasons. Inaccessibility means that it is difficult to put into place adequate crowd management and safety measures. For example, by eyewitness accounts, the entrance to the Chamunda Devi temple was very narrow and there were no exits to escape out of in case of emergency.

A second major problem is that crowd-managers at events in which freely-moving crowds participate can only make preparations based on turnout estimates. Obviously, even these numbers can go awry. Those guiding temple devotees at best have a very nebulous idea of how many will turn up on any given day. In addition, the task of managing the crowd flow at religious sites is noticeably difficult because these crowds are never homogeneous. There will always be children and the elderly who will have special needs in the unfortunate case an evacuation is required.

Finally, there are the “black-box” parameters that can perturb even the best-managed crowds. Changes in weather, accidents, fires, spreading rumors, and changes in mood have all known to cause escape panic.

For all structures hosting mass events, architects and structural engineers need to consider the psychology of individuals in a group in order to be able to design effective emergency exits to prevent avoidable calamities. Sadly, only recently has crowd psychology gained traction as a practical consideration in the design of structures. Until recently, the primary guiding principle in the design of structures for mass use was fluid dynamics, the branch of physics dealing with the flow of fluids such as water. The assumption was that crowds move in a way similar to water in a pipe – evenly distributed with an equal speed at any given time.

Put plainly, this assumption does not hold water. Individuals in a group exhibit crowding behavior, something that cannot be accurately accounted for by comparing to fluids. Once we think about it, it isn’t surprising at all. From experience, we know that often one queue is longer than another at the movie theater for no apparent reason and that people do not spread out evenly in all the compartments of a local train.

In an escape panic situation, individuals deviate from fluids even further. Under duress, individuals tend to walk faster than usual. They tend to push and shove others ahead of them in the perceived escape route. In the heat of the moment, other escape routes are frequently overlooked. In confined areas such as crowded exit points, moving becomes uncoordinated and physical forces build up to a point that steel fences and brick walls can get damaged. No wonder then that many people fall in the melee and get injured! These people then become obstructions that have to be overcome by the rest of the crowd.

Partly because it is unscrupulous to conduct experiments that force people to hurt themselves in panic situations (besides being an opportunity for massive legal action), there is little scientific data on how real people react under extreme pressure. However researchers led by Dirk Helbing at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany used computers to model crowd behavior in escape panic. Helbing simulated the exit of 200 pedestrians through a one metre-wide exit of a room 225 square meters in area.

Helbing’s landmark account was different from many other studies on crowd dynamics because he incorporated both physical and psychological parameters in his computer model. For example, physical considerations included the average mass of individuals in the crowd, the average starting velocity of the moving individuals, and a realistic estimate for acceleration time upon panicking. For example a parameter based on human psychology which should be taken into account is the tendency of individuals to avoid physical contact with one another as much as possible which, of course, is true for most of us.

From computer simulations, Helbing calculated that the exit of pedestrians from a room would be regular until the pedestrians began to rush to get out. When a threshold velocity was reached, pedestrians actually began to block the exit. Impatience caused further clogging which led to fewer people exiting in the escape panic then would have gotten out under normal circumstances.

This is something that you might have also noticed in real life when observing passengers trying to get on to a bus through a narrow door. People swarm in a while trying to get on the bus, but the number of passengers actually entering does not increase proportionally with the force applied by the crowd at the door.

The obvious answer to this problem is to increase the size of the exits, but within the constraints of Helbing’s test, increasing the exit routes could not prevent congestion completely. For all types of structures, increasing exit points is not feasible either. Imagine trying to increase the doors of buses and trains and you see the problem. Instead, Helbing recommended a radical solution – placing columns in front of exits. By placing column at strategically located asymmetrical points, crowds would not be able to build up pile up to deadly physical forces.

As we have now observed through these examples, completely falling under the sway of crowd behavior can be quite detrimental. Of course, this does not indicate that at all times individuals should strive to automatically oppose any consensus. There may be an intelligible reason why an idea is held in favor by a majority. In a burning, smoke-filled room there may be a crowd near the single known exit, but searching for another exit might also be time-consuming and ultimately futile. Taking the life of another human that has meant no harm might seem deeply individualistic, but there are also valid reasons why most societies find this sort of behavior particularly reprehensible. Therefore, we should strive to strike a reasonable balance between being individualistic and social.

How, then is such an intricate balancing act possible? There are no sweeping, black-and-white answers to this question, and unfortunately, any attempt at one is no more than a hollow platitude. What we can do is examine each scenario on a case-by-case basis to determine when we want to follow the crowd and when we want to act alone. And we can increase the likelihood for an acceptable outcome through analysis of prior outcomes and increased personal experience whenever possible.

(This is an excerpt from a much longer piece on groupthink and the psychology of crowds.)

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Psyclone

After spending close to a week on St Thomas in the Caribbean, I came very close to the possibility of being stranded there for an indefinite period. At the small airport in Charlotte Amalie, a few hours before scheduled takeoff, tourists were camping out for the long-haul as airline staff announced over the public address system that one flight after another was being diverted to San Juan in Puerto Rico instead of attempting to land on the single runway. The culprit was Hurricane Otto which had formed over the Virgin Islands as my departure date approached, and it was pounding down with the vengeance of a chancellor of a German Empire.

The idea of being trapped in paradise suddenly seemed unpalatable.

Fortunately, the whiteout let up for a few minutes, which was sufficient time for the small propeller-driven plane to land. All the passengers were rapidly marshaled on to the tarmac and after boarding the aircraft in drill-worthy time, the plane whirred off towards the calmer skies prevailing over Puerto Rico.

Tragedy had been averted, but the entire episode had me thinking about hurricanes and cyclones. How the blazes do they ever get named?

Well, in the Atlantic Ocean, tropical storm and hurricane names are selected alphabetically in advance each year, alternating between female and male names. So, just before Otto, there was Nicole. Also because there are only six lists, the names rotate every six years. The only names that get retired are the ones which cause some really hardcore devastation. It kind reminded me of how in some sports, teams retire the roster numbers of really successful players.

There is a completely different naming scheme for cyclones originating in the North Indian Ocean with Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand contributing names to the all-star lineup. My guess is that India contributed Akash, Bijli, Jal, Lehar, Megh, Sagar, and Vayu. I’ve got no problems with these, although they’re kind of unoriginal. I mean doesn’t India use some of these names for the space program too?

The other countries don’t do much better either, I’m afraid (with notable exceptions like Chapala). Remember Sidr and Nargis from previous years? Well, coming up in a few years are Bulbul and Priya which sound like affectionate names for charming little girls.

Why can’t we name cyclones so that people take them seriously for the death and destruction they cause?

I mean why would I take any weather formation called Titli seriously? I’d think to myself, “It is probably only going to be a mild breeze with a few fluffy clouds and rainbows. I’ll just rent a DVD and order a pizza for delivery.”

It would be a completely different story if I heard about a cyclone named Kaali Maut (Black Death); by now, I’d be wrapping my lungi around my torso already halfway up a palm tree.

Photo credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project (public domain).

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Walking for a thousand years…

I hopped out of the E Line train I had boarded in midtown Manhattan. Stepping out of the Jackson Heights Subway Station in Queens I was transfixed. It was as if I made the trip across thousands to miles to Sealdah Station in Kolkata. I was in the community of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis in New York City known as Little India – the narrow strip of packed shops on 74th and 73rd streets between 37th and Roosevelt avenues.

Like many men and women of my generation, I left India and crossed the kalapaani on a jumbo jet with only two pieces of baggage (not exceeding 60 kilograms). Over the years, like a long-separated acquaintance, India moved on while I spent my days in self-imposed exile. The television channels rotated. The names of the cricket-players and film-stars changed. Salaries and the prices of commodities rose. Cousins grew up, married, and had children. Relatives tied through invisible bonds passed away while I adamantly refused to acknowledge their passing until the sheer physical emptiness on short trips to the birthland caused a sudden aching release of emotions.

But I felt like a forgotten guest in my own birthland too. No one in my former college knew I had walked down the corridors with the wanton arrogance that befitted youth. When I tried to order in Bangla at a posh Kolkata restaurant, I was replied to in English by the waiter, who was also a Bengali. When I persisted in responding in the language of the non-convent educated second-class citizenry, I was ignored. Had it always been this way?

I changed too, but avoided looking into the mirror.

In America, I found new friends many who shared the experience of the Great Voyage. While in graduate school, on Friday nights, I’d laugh myself silly watching ludicrous Hindi films with Indian and American friends wolfing down carryout from a Bangladeshi-run Indian Chinese restaurant. We would eat the Chicken Manchurian with  Pakistani basmati rice boiled in a cheap rice-cooker.

But I still longed for a home.

On 74th Street, I walked past 22-carat gold jewelers, music stores blaring songs in Hindi, aunties selling calling cards in dingy kiosks, and large grocery stores smelling of cardamom and garam masala.

I walked down 37th and crossed into 73rd Street, the Bangladeshi corner of the neighborhood. The shops all had signs in Bangla, my native language. I entered a bookstore and glanced at a couple of festive editions of literary magazines shipped in from Kolkata for Durga Puja and from Dhaka for Eid. I chatted with the owner about the recent writings of Sunil Gangopadhyay, a Bengali Indian writer and Humayun Ahmed, a Bengali Bangladeshi writer.

After buying a few books which had crossed the oceans in a similar journey to mine, I stepped outside. On the pavement, I saw a rickshaw painted with the bright art so common across so many of our birthlands. It could have been a rickshaw that I had sat on while going to school in my own hometown in India.

By now I was hungry, so I stepped into a crowded Bangladeshi restaurant on 73rd. A chirpy woman greeted me in a Dhakai Bangla accent. I sat down at a table and ordered a number of unknown Bangladeshi dishes most of which were not common in the part of West Bengal I hail from. One was a ilish polao a fragrant pilaf made with hilsa – the fish that Bengalis from both countries swear by. I had never heard of this particular dish, but as I sat at the table and ate, I relished every morsel. It was foreign to me, but not entirely unfamiliar.

A number of Bangladeshis sat at the next table and smiled at me and I smiled back. Perhaps, at some point in the past, in an undivided India the lives of our ancestors had intersected as ours briefly did through pure accident now. But over sixty years our divergent political, religious, and social legacies were at conflict with some of our culinary, linguistic, and geographic commonalities so that invisible walls separated our tables.

The threats of cross-border militancy, illegal immigration, water disputes, and cultural hegemony that divide our countries of origin are not irrelevant. But the cruelest joke is that they result from a border which was created artificially. If only our countries had been on separate islands!

But I didn’t want to think about that then. As I walked down 73rd Street, I thought I finally understood what Jibanananda Das meant in his poem Banalata Sen about walking the earth for a thousand years.

Not having a home doesn’t have to be a curse.

I suddenly felt buoyant…

Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where. And we don’t know where

…the only living boy in New York.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

A non-review of NBC’s new sitcom “Outsourced”

The American television network channel NBC just started airing a television sitcom called Outsourced about a couple of Americans who move to India to run a call-center full of Indians selling novelty items to clients back home in America. I’ve watched the pilot episode and a few others since then.

As you know, I’m a desi. And from my perspective I’ve thought for while about writing a review about the sitcom. But I’d like to perform a simple experiment instead. Read the following sentences on racial and cultural stereotypes and think about them.

Indians don’t have any food. They are dirty. They defecate on the street.

Americans are unemployable. They are materialistic. They deal drugs on the street.

Some Indians and Americans certainly do fit these stereotypes. But definitely not all of them.

So do any of these stereotypes offend you? Are you indifferent to them? Do you just laugh off as ignorant nonsense?

Now look at the cartoon below which I created. You might find it funny as an Indian or as an American. Or as an Indian or as an American you might find it deeply offensive.

I do not know where you’re coming from. Perhaps, your job got shipped to India. Perhaps, you felt insulted when someone treated you differently because of the color of your skin. I am not saying it doesn’t happen. And I can definitely try to empathize with you either way regardless of your nationality or ethnicity.

I also understand your viewpoint if you laugh at others. I admire you if you can laugh at yourself.

But keep repeating the stereotypes you find funny now over and over again. Don’t you find them kind of annoying now? Like uninspired stupor masquerading as humorous banter?

That is my problem with Outsourced.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban