Monday, February 04, 2013

There's a scammer born every minute

I wouldn’t have thought that a scam targeting Honduran non-profits would be particularly lucrative. Few of them have a discretionary centavo to spare outside of their meticulously itemized project funds.
But this scam is a relatively clever appeal to the ego, and I can see how it might trick somebody running an NGO in a developing country like Honduras. It involves an invitation to an international congress on HIV-AIDS ostensibly being organized in Canada at the end of this month by the Ontario Public Health Association.
My boss at the Comision de Accion Social Menonita head office in San Pedro Sula received the invitation, forwarding it to me with a request that I verify its legitimacy.
Screen shot of the fake invitation
The OPHA has yet to respond to an email I sent asking about the scam. But the $620 registration fee to be mailed in U.S. funds to an address in Spain did raise my suspicions from the start. So did the fact that the invitation is in French – one of Canada’s two official languages, true, but not the one you’d expect an Ontario organization to use when sending out international invitations (or ever, really).
I did a Google search today on the name of the man listed on the invitation as the president of OPHA, M. Jean Paul Merlier. Not only is he not the president, but his name brought up a warning on the Web site of the Union of InternationalAssociations cautioning members about the scam. It also brought up a site that featured that particular invitation and a variety of others for the use of anyone in the business of scamming NGOs.
“An increasing number of email scams are using NGOs, international NGOs, development agencies, meetings, international conferences etc. as the hook to defraud or cheat unsuspecting recipients,” notes the UIA in a message about the OPHA scam, which first surfaced two months ago.
The organization then goes on to list 316 examples of similar scams dating back to 2009. Many invoke the names of internationally renowned groups from the World Health Organization to the Red Cross as a means of luring innocent NGOs into submitting registration fees for non-existent international conferences.
Unlike those Nigerian scams with too many capital letters and a promised payout that’s just way too rich to believe, somebody did put a little thought into the six-page invitation that my boss received.
There are some official-looking logos at the top of the page, albeit out-of-focus and strangely stretched-looking, and even a photo of the fictional Mr. Merlier at a podium with a Canadian flag in the background.  The invitation trots out many of the themes popular among the international-NGO set, from caring for the environment to addressing Africa’s poverty.
And while a $620 registration fee is huge money in a country like Honduras, the invitation promises an all-expenses-paid trip to Canada and a $620 per-diem for the five days of the conference. That could be enough to suck in an unsuspecting NGO director or two.
I don’t imagine the Ontario Public Health Association is happy about having its good name sullied in a global scam. But the association can at least get a rueful laugh out of being described in the invitation as “a charitable organization of Canadian law with international aims and objectives among others to assist individuals and organizations around the world through loans for business, education, economic development and environmental protection, especially to support African organizations involved in the social, environmental and economic assistance for humanitarian NGOs...”
As for the poor guy in a suit who’s pictured on the invitation as the fictional Mr. Merlier, I’m sure he’d be deeply unhappy to learn that his photo is being used to scam money from non-profits in developing countries. But at least he’s just got three more weeks to tough it out until the date of the fake HIV-AIDS conference passes and a new scam takes its place. 

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