A cover girl? Not so fast. How a Fact Checker Almost Got Scammed and How You Can Avoid a Similar Fate
At Africa Check, we are no strangers to uncovering scams. We have written extensively on job scams, conference scams, medical scams and even delved deeply into a particular subject weird scam involving a witty white boy, South African entrepreneur Tokyo Sexwale and a missing R41 quadrillion.
But in a cruel twist of irony, all this knowledge about scams and fact-checking didn’t stop me from being scammed myself.
Well, almost a victim. I was lucky to figure out the scam in time, so the only thing I lost in this process was time and a bit of my sanity.
But I realize others may not be so lucky. Gone are the days when scams primarily targeted older people unfamiliar with technology. A study by the online verification service social catfish showed that in 2021, American Internet users aged 20 and under were fastest growing victims internet scams, up 156% since 2017. And a 2021 survey by the Consumer Credit Reporting Agency Trans Union found this 45% of respondents in South Africa have been the target of online fraud schemes, 8% of them have been victims.
My experience has taught me that no one is immune to online scams. So what happened to me, how did I figure it out, and what are the warning signs you can watch out for?
It’s all in the details
I was approached by the scammers at a particularly stressful time in my life. I won’t go into details, but I was dealing with a personal crisis that affected my ability to concentrate. More on that later.
The scam itself started with an email from a magazine called world leaders. They asked to feature me as part of an article they were doing about five successful black women in their respective fields.
I had previously received a similar request on a professional networking site LinkedIn from a reputable media organization that wanted to profile a number of professional black women from all walks of life as part of their special edition of Women’s Month. In South Africa women’s month is observed in August.
I incorrectly assumed the email was from the same media organization that approached me on LinkedIn.
Although I did not recognize World’s Leaders magazine, I felt that I could not know all the publications. And besides, I’m nowhere near accomplished enough to be featured by people like Forbes.
So I did a quick check and browsed the magazine’s website. Some of the covers I saw featured real businessmen who had clearly been interviewed. It was my first big mistake. Skimming through led me to miss details that should have been immediate red flags.
Shortly after agreeing to be interviewed, I received a bill for US$2,000 (about R32,000). That’s when the alarm bells started ringing. I knew that no genuine publication would make an interviewee pay for what was essentially positive reporting. To do so would be a huge breach of ethics. So I decided to dig a little deeper into World’s Leaders magazine. Well… It opened my eyes.
Fake magazine linked to vanity scams
The first major red flag came from the current website. Although the people on the previous covers existed, the articles about them were of questionable quality.
And none of the people in management organization chart seem to exist outside the magazine. I was unable to find any photos or other mention of senior executives in the magazine, including their supposed editor, Steve Sanchez. It seemed strange for a high-ranking person in the media industry. Compare that to other editors, such as Adrian Basson of News24 Where Methil Renukaeditorial director of Forbes Africa. They were both interviewed by other media and are mentioned by websites and items outside of their own publications.
I also took a closer look at the physical address the world leaders had given me, which was also on their LinkedIn page – 3296 Westerville Rd, Columbus, Ohio in the United States. On Google Maps, this address displayed a dilapidated parking lot and a list of small enterprises without any mention of the magazine anywhere. Extremely strange for a magazine which, according to his LinkedIn pageis large enough to have offices in London and India, with its headquarters at this Columbus, Ohio address.
Most interestingly, in the Google search results for World’s Leaders magazine, I saw references to a Magazine of Global Business Leaders. This magazine seems to have a similar format and target audience. Like World’s Leaders magazine, there is zero indication on Google Maps at the address given on the website where the magazine’s offices are located. Instead, it shows what appears to be an apartment building in Atlanta, Georgia, with a few small shops.
People have also called Global Business Leaders a scam. On the Quora Q&A site, revealed users that they were approached by the magazine the same way I was. Some were also asked to pay a “nominal feeof $2,500.
“The Global Business Leaders Mag is completely fraudulent and spammy, running business from India and misleading people using foreign names”, a comment reads.
“They ask for $2,500 cash, but when I asked for their office address so I could go and deposit the check directly to them, they were apologizing and continually asking me to send it to the bank. .”
A 2021 article confirmed that the magazine was a scam, promising potential interviewees advertising on the magazine’s social media in exchange for a Nominal fee of $2,500. He did it using fake engagement numbers.
It sounded like it was the exact same scam I was being targeted for, rebranded with a new name after people started calling it.
This type of scam is also known as “vanity scamin which people are approached for awards or recognition by organizations and then asked to pay for it. These scams tend to be a bit more sophisticated than typical scams because scammers have to try harder to pass themselves off as legit. This means that even the most skeptical among us are more likely to fall in love with a.
So how did this happen?
For starters, they had done their homework. They knew my name, my race, the organization I worked for and my job title. They knew that I had done recently the 2022 Mail & Guardian 200 young South Africans list and were able to use all of this information in their proposal.
They also tried to contact my managers after they stopped responding to their emails, in which case I told them I knew it was a scam and they had to leave me alone. Luckily they did, but the fact that they knew who I replied to and their contact details shows how much research they had done.
They didn’t just ask me for money. They asked me to complete an interview questionnaire and send them high quality photos of myself and my company logo. (I didn’t send any of those things.)
Looking at on their website makes it clear that they had requested this information specifically to create one of their authentic magazine covers and profile pieces in order to hook other targets. And it is possible that the Africa Check logo has been added to their affiliate page brands to make themselves more legitimate. A quick glance at this page reveals a host of real companies of which technology company Samsung and Arizona State University. All of this helps add credibility to the website.
More seriously, the information they asked me for could have helped them commit identity theft if I had given in. If I had clicked on any of the links they sent me, they might have infected my laptop with malware, or malware that could have helped them steal sensitive data.
I also think my mental state at the time played a part in my inability to identify the scam earlier. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in times of crisis “affected people gather information, process information, and act on that information differently than they would outside of times of crisis.” In other words, times of stress can cause to poor decision making.
In short? Do research, ask questions and never hand over money
So what are the takeaways here?
- Be very, very careful with any company that approaches you online, even if they appear to know personal information about you. Do Google searches on the specific people who contact you and remember that if they don’t seem to exist outside of the company they claim to represent, that’s a red flag.
- Use Google Maps to look up any physical address they can send you to make sure the business is actually located there. Searches on user-based websites like Quora and Reddit can also show you if other people have already reported the organization as a scam.
- Above all, beware of any request for money. Reputable organizations generally won’t ask you to pay for a story in a publication, awards, job opportunities, or release funds that are owed to you.
It’s also important to remember that your mental health can play a role in your ability to process information. If you’re going through a particularly stressful time in your life, it’s best not to accept new proposals.
I certainly learned to be much more discerning from this experience. I hope you will learn from my mistakes and exercise caution when approached for what appears to be a golden opportunity.