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

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Did Prahlad Jani survive 70 years without food or drink?

As someone actively engaged in the dissemination of scientific information, I find it incumbent on myself to sift through the news to see how science is being represented by the media. Last week many media outlets including the AFP, reported a curious case of an Indian holy man who claimed to have survived without sustenance in the form of food or water for seven decades.

Prahlad Jani, 83, claims that a goddess blessed him at a very early age and since then he has not taken in a drop of liquid or a morsel of food. If you thought this claim was fantastic enough, there is more. India’s Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) confined Jani and observed him for fifteen days during which time, to quote the AFP article, “he neither ate nor drank and did not go to the toilet”. However during this time, he was allowed to gargle and bathe.

It is not uncommon for humans to survive long periods of time without food. Physiologically, the body first uses up glucose and then glycogen. Once these ready sources are depleted muscle-mass starts to decrease. Ketones are used next and after a few days, fat is used in “survival mode.” Mahatma Gandhi fasted several times during his life (including a 21-day fast in 1932) during which times he did not eat any solid foods. There are reports of people surviving 40 and even 50 days without food. However, reports of people living without water or other liquids for over ten days are somewhat rare.

I am firm believer in the maxim that fantastic claims require fantastic proof. While it is possible that Jani has trained his body to live without food and water for days, the claim that he has done so for years is far-fetched and should not have been touted without a healthy dose of skepticism. Further, the fact that he was allowed to bathe casts a cloud of unreliability on the claim that he did not drink or urinate during the time. The experiment should have been performed without the provision of bathing.

Another point is worth bearing in mind. Extrapolating from a fifteen-day experiment to the conclusion that Jani has not eaten for 70 years (as some media outlets have done) is similar to accepting a claim that someone can swim from New York to London across the Atlantic because they can do 100 laps in an Olympic swimming pool.

The AFP report also notes the following:

“During the 15-day observation, which ended on Thursday, the doctors took scans of Jani’s organs, brain, and blood vessels, as well as doing tests on his heart, lungs and memory capacity”

Notice anything strange apart from the poorly-constructed sentence? Yes, exactly! The tests are all fine, but why doesn’t the report mention the one vital statistic that you and I are thinking of? Why is there no mention of Jani’s weight at the start and at the end of the experiment? One would expect his weight to fall, which immediately would rubbish his claim for living 70 years on divine yogic breath.

Finally, the comment by observing physician Sudhir Shah is extremely alarming:

“If Jani does not derive energy from food and water, he must be doing that from energy sources around him, sunlight being one.”

The conclusion that Jani does not derive energy from food and water has not been firmly established, but Shah is already hinting at the possibility of sunlight as a direct source of energy. This concept is easily digestible to Hindus and Jains who share a special reverence for the sun, but is a reckless one to make.  First, a mountain of evidence must be accumulated to support that Jani possesses metabolism unlike all other humans and multicellular animals. That possibility seems unlikely. Second, there would need to be some observation that sunlight is the direct source of his energy. Finally, a process by which it occurs would need to be provided. Contrary to popular opinion, science does not satisfy its adherents by being phenomenological. If I were to claim to live on air alone, I would be required to provide a plausible hypothesis for how I was doing so that either obeyed the known laws of the physical and natural world or under very rare circumstances modified them. Providing outlandish untested hypotheses based on poorly-designed experiments is shameful.

A final word on the state of Indian science. There are many serious, hardworking Indian scientists toiling away in labs that do not get this sort of attention. If India wants to be treated as a country with scientific potential, it must get its priorities straight. A top-down approach in which government mandates how much will be spent in a year is good for building bridges, but not adequate for fostering a scientific temperament. Government institutions like DIPAS should know better than to waste money on poorly-designed experiments.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to write your own biography in Wikipedia. From the renowned author of “Deconstructing Quantum Sufi-Yoga”

Last night, the benevolent god mahi-mahi came to me in a vision and instructed me in a mix of Urdu-sounding Hindi, Hindi-sounding Urdu, Klingon, and C++ to form the Khudbakhud Uttarvedantic Wikipedia Society, a charitable organization exempt from US federal income tax under section 501(c)(3). As you know, articles in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia are among the top hits in internet search engines. The goal of our tax-exempt Society is to create our own biographies in Wikipedia and pass off to family members, jealous colleagues, prospective employers, and random, uninterested Facebook friends as evidence of our great standing in science and letters. In this guide, I will lead you in the art of creating your very own personalized Wikipedia autobiography.

One way to get on Wikipedia is to to actually do something worthy of recognition. You could write a bestseller or come up with a major scientific discovery and the world would most certainly notice. Someone would write a Wikipedia entry for you. But let’s be frank. I’m writing a blog and you’re sitting here reading it. Frankly, it ain’t gonna happen for either of us. Fortunately, Wikipedia is written by people like you and me, and so there are tons of mediocre people (just like you and me) who are writing their own over-hyped articles on Wikipedia as we speak. And even if you did have the talent to do something worthwhile in life, why would you take the trouble anyways? It is much easier to become notable through Wikipedia than to become notable and then get on Wikipedia.

Here are the steps to creating your own autobiography on Wikipedia:

Step 1. Start websites with legitimate-sounding domain names. In the mafia, you need a shop to act as a front. In the web popularity game, you need to get your name out on Google by posting comments with your name on as many websites and blogs as possible and starting a few fake websites of your own. If you’re a scientist, write about how great you are on your fake website New Sceintist, which sounds a lot like New Scientist. Steal html templates if you can. If it looks similar, it is just as good. Most people can’t read, so who will notice?

By getting your name out in cyberspace, you’re increasing your hits on Google, a primary index used to determine if you’ve done anything worthy of Wikipedia.

Step 2. Make a list of important-sounding fake publications. This is the most important step. If you’ve ever written anything in life, you need to put it on Wikipedia. For example the essay you wrote on the cow in primary school should be written up as A post-modern analysis of the sociological and economic importance of Bos indicus var. dudhwali in the South Asian subcontinent. Anything will do, but you will need to use words such as “deconstruction,” “post-modern”, “quantum”, “paradigm”, as well as a smattering of South Asian keywords (preferably with religious connotations). That way later if your article is tagged for deletion, you can always challenge the Wikipedia editors. If they dispute the South Asian part, tell them they are perpetrating colonialist stereotypes. If they attack the science, appeal to the art. No one on the planet understands both Derrida and Bose-Einstein statistics.

It is as easy as 1-2-3. Follow my example. By putting some very esoteric words in the title of this article, I am enhancing my own reputation as a pundit. Web aggregators will pick it up and soon enough I will be known as an expert in Deconstruction, quantum mechanics, Sufism, and yoga. Repeat after me: “I am as smart as I fake myself out to be”.

If you haven’t done anything creative in your life, then use the approach of making up something extremely important. For example, say that your magnum opus is A Long History of the World (Vol I-XX). Always use Roman numerals for volumes and throw in some French or Latin if possible. If challenged to produce your work, say that it was originally written in a now-extinct Andamanese dialect and that the editor is being a racist, Eurocentric pig. If you’re a woman, claim to be the poor victim of a male-dominated society. You can’t lose!

Step 3. Create an account on Wikipedia. You’ll need an account to look legit. Without one, editors will flag your IP address. Choose something distinguished such as Rabindranath_Tagore or S_Radhakrishnan and put an embellished resume up on your page. For example, if you know that Achtung is not the sound of a German sneezing, mention on your page that you have native-level comprehension of the German language.

Step 4. Find a list of editors you can win over. For the most part Wikipedia is edited not by professional experts, but by hobbyists who know all the levels in Tekken, but not which side of the bread is buttered. Win them over by commenting on their personal pages. They don’t have money, power, or social lives. I mean, why else would they write for no recognition or money?

Step 5. Make some very basic edits on other Wikipedia articles. If the first thing you do is to write your own article, people will get suspicious. Do some very basic copyediting on one of the thousands of incomprehensible articles on the site first.

Step 6. Steal the template for an existing high-quality Wikipedia article on someone you admire. Wiki-markup is easy, but stealing is easier. Take an article written about a famous person in your discipline and use it as a template. It will have all the category tags built it and it is as easy as “plug and play”.

Step 7. You are who you want to be, so write creatively. Journalists are very good at this, but everyone should be instinctively good at using weasel-words. Use “many”, “most”. and other non-specific words to blast across how awesome you are. As you write, think carefully. If you ever sent your flop book to someone, say it was “well received” (omitting the fact that the postal service is efficient). If your mother really liked your painting, say “many experts found it breathtaking in scope and originality.” If you know multiple languages, then use non-Roman script for your works. Again, you are working on the vanishingly small odds that there is someone who is both a polymath and a Wikipedia junkie.

A final word of advice  for those lucky few in positions of power. Get your employees or students to do the work for you. Say that you are just about to work on their annual performance review or grade their test papers. You’ll be surprised at how common people who don’t deserve to be on Wikipedia grovel just to keep us celebrities happy!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Will the real Nithyananda please stand up?

My fellow desi ladies and gentlemen:

I stand here humbled by the historic significance of the moment. Last night from the chawls of Chennai to the  burbs of Boston, from the galis of Gandhinagar to the gulleys of Galipoli, from the sarson fields of Sasaram to single-flats of Stratford-upon-Avon, we rose together in unison to praise and deify Swami Nithyananda Paramhamsa!

Those who do not know the Divine One may ask sacrilegiously, “who is this Nithyananda? Of what element is he made?” In fact, before last night, I myself had not heard his name.  But when I heard the call of duty from a Higher Power [1], like thousands of my fellow countrymen, did I not rise to the occasion? Swami Nithyananda, the spiritual and temporal master, he of strong will and firm body, owner of sacred Ashram in Bidadi, conqueror of almost all the vices, [2] did he not deserve deification? [3]

When we heard that Swami Nithyananda and an anonymous devadasi [4] were together, we knew it was to maintain divine mingling of shakti and purusha and to restore the Cosmic Balance of the Universe.  The ethereal moment passed through ethernet and guru and shishya were (and I quote from an  article)  “lying on a bed and doing personal things with each other”. Aah, who can fathom the leela of His Worship?

Passing the baton of messages, [5] across the globe, thousands of us chanted the mahamantra [6]. It was the day and night stugggle of good and evil- the devas and the asuras, the yin and the yang. And by his benevolence and the prayers of his devotees, #nithyananda became a trending topic on Twitter reaching a million souls [7] ! So that the pearls of wisdom do not get lost in the sands of time, these were painstakingly collected [8] for future generations.

But now the following day, as the demons of darkness [9] try to insult Guruji, should we sit and do nothing? Shall the enormity of the moment lapse into distant memory? Nay, I say for we must remember to heart the scriptures that were chanted.

Last night in the midst of the mellifluous strains of tweet-sangeet we realized the Absolute Truth.

I am Nithyananda. You are Nithyananda. We are all Nithyananda. Tat tvam asi.

Thank you.

________________

Footnotes:

[1] namely, Ramesh Srivats

[2] lust is insignificant says Sri Hallmark.

[3] not defecation

[4] Ranjitha

[5] 140 characters or less

[6] “___ by day, ___ by night”. Some mantas here.

[7] reach calculated by the Wall Street Journal

[8] by Blogadda

[9] Times of India

If you have no clue what this spoof is about, please read this piece in the Wall Street Journal.