YOU may have read it as you were browsing online. A screaming headline: ‘Breaking news’, complete with a picture of a giant snake swallowing some pygmies in the Congo rain forest or some Indian village. Many have been swayed into double-clicking the picture which, after 60 seconds, redirects them to some blank website with absolutely nothing sensible to read.
So you disappointedly brush it off and close the page to concentrate on your emails and think nothing much of it, but in reality, you will have paid money to the owner of the website. You have been scammed, or bakugong’a, as my traditional cousins from the east and south would be told after losing all their money to mishanga sellers of the 1990s as they waited to board United Bus Company of Zambia (UBZ) buses.
Except that this is the 21st century. Gone are the days of ‘aka red, naka black’, or ‘belt belt’, or ‘stick-in-matchbox’ tricks, which made many travellers to the city lose their hard-earned money at the hands of the mishanga sellers, who would lure their victims to participate in the seemingly easy gambling in an effort to double the money they already had. Indeed, many fell victim to these scams.
We are already past the age when some tricksters would send an email with attached bank statements, purporting to be coming from some ex-spouse or that they are surviving heirs to a fortune of some very corrupt former government minister of an unstable African country. They would ask for your bank details so that they could transfer all their money to your account. Their promise was that they would reward you handsomely for all your trouble once they are in the country.
The email would be peppered with all sorts of Christian sycophancy and Bible verses, promising exceptional gratitude to be shown once the transactions have been completed. Alas, before you know it, you would be repeatedly transferring funds to the ‘rich heir’ in an effort to cement the relationship and confirm your trustworthiness of the billions about to hit your account. Many fell victim to such scams.
In this era when technological advances can even allow one to photoshop pictures, a lot of falsehoods are being circulated and, unfortunately, most of our vulnerable people are easily tricked. They simply believe as long as it is on the internet; to them everything is true.
The advent of social media has resulted in faster information being disseminated in the cheapest way possible. With social media, you could be fighting armyworms ravaging your maize fields, but posts on Facebook or Twitter about you drinking Brazilian Cappuccino at Hungry Lion in Los Angeles, with Kim Kardashian sitting across the table breastfeeding her daughter, North West, sound hilarious, but it’s the reality of our time.
With high levels of unemployment, we’ve had many cases of false adverts of recruitment by high-profile institutions, government ministries and the armed forces, etc. False Facebook accounts of leading public figures, such as cabinet ministers, musicians, pastors and businessmen have been created by criminals with the intention of duping people to part with their hard-earned money for some job or supposed fundraising projects.
In the current world of fast internet and smartphones, with internet and mobile banking transactions, criminals have devised new ways of stealing and are cashing in on the uninformed. Unlike the ‘aka red naka black’ scams highlighted earlier, the earnings in today’s scams are enormous as the victims are not just limited to the bus stations or market in Zambia but everyone, anywhere in the world who is able to go online is a potential victim. Sadly, the victims are not even aware that they are being duped and are losing money in some cases.
Imagine, for instance, with over four million daily internet users in Zambia alone, a website owner is able to earn K0.50 ngwee from each visitor who visits his website. In a day, this would amount to K2 million. The more visitors to the site, the more income the website owner earns. Therefore, in order to attract more visitors and keep them coming, the website owner resorts to creating fake news. Sensationalism has become the trend as there is money to be made at the expense of ruining people’s reputations. False stories are created by these criminals for the sole purpose of increasing the number of visitors, thus generating more revenue.
Even State House has not been spared by these unscrupulous people. Alarming reports have been circulated via WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter purporting to be official press statements of supposed ministerial appointments, Cabinet reshuffles and other official pronouncements. This has the potential to compromise national security as the news is spread like wildfire. Recently, Special Assistant to the President for Press and Public Relations Amos Chanda was prompted to issue a circular to all media houses stating that henceforth, all statements from his office would bear the State House stamp initialed and signed by him, and posted on the State House website.
Many stakeholders such as the Zambia Information Communications and Technology Authority have been called upon to help in bringing the culprits to book. The Zambia Police Service has equally established a cybercrime unit to monitor and track those abusing social media to commit crimes.
The media need to be alert and verify the authenticity of a lot of stories before publishing them as they risk being sued for damages and for ruining innocent people’s reputations. In all this, we can only reach one conclusion: Don’t believe everything you read online. Verify, verify, verify before circulating anything. Do not participate in circulating falsehoods.
The author is an investigative freelance journalist with interest in socio-economic development, politics, and religious and cultural affairs.