Lifting the lid on scammers and their trade

2012-01-10 00:00

STEPHEN Cloete is a magician adept at sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors,­ and he is highly trained to deceive the average person. It’s a skill that has led him to a successful entertainment career.

Now in its second print run, Cloete’s book, Scam’d, is an account of how ordinary people become victims of criminals who prey on their emotions and their carelessness.

Even he has been an unwitting victim­ of these ruthless cons who do not care how much their manipulations­ cause heartbreak and distress.

Cloete, who is the cruise director of a luxury cruise ship, says he gives a presentation to ship passengers on how to avoid becoming a victim of common cons. He sells the book to those who want to know more.

“I decided to write the book for several­ reasons, but the foremost reason­ was because I was tired of seeing so many people being scammed so easily. In South Africa in 2011, nearly R1,5 billion was stolen in cyber crime alone.

“Generally people are not sceptical enough. They believe the e-mail that offers a free cellphone or a free holiday if they forward the e-mail to 50 friends.

“I discovered that there was a definite gap in information about scams and how and why they work.

“My purpose is not only to show people how scams work, but also to be more critical of everything. Scams are becoming the crime of the future and the most effective prevention is to understand how they work so you can spot them before they do any damage.”

Being a magician has helped him develop a critical understanding of how conmen use illusion and misdirection to set up a successful con.

As a child he was captivated by magic. At one friend’s birthday party he watched a magician perform. At that point he knew that was what he wanted to learn and as he grew older he was inspired by other magicians.

“My magical heroes have included David Copperfield, Penn and Teller and Derren Brown, the former for his amazing shows and bringing magic to the masses in TV specials during the eighties and nineties and the latter two for their constant work in exposing­ psychic fraud and pseudo- science.

Cloete staged his first magical show in his teens and toured with it to local high schools.

“I still have my first confirmation letter for my first paid gig. It was for a Rotary Christmas party and I charged the handsome sum of R10 for a 45-minute magic show. I turned fulltime professional in 1996, a year before I started working on cruise ships.”

Cloete says that quite a few con men started out having an interest­ in magic­.

“Mediocre magicians cannot make it professionally as entertainers, but when they start pretending their tricks are real, they get a much wider [and more gullible] audience.

“To be a magician is amazing, but to be a psychic makes you appear even more extraordinary. Certain street magicians have learnt their trade doing con magic such as the three-card monte [find the lady] or find the pea under the shell game.

“Some gangs are on the Durban beachfront and there are some in most major cities around the world. They offer a gambling chance to find a card, but they are actually very skilled magicians able to manipulate the card to any position they choose.

“They strike usually at the end of the month when people have cash and feel lucky.”

Cloete says that if you have a computer and have an e-mail account then you have probably been targetted by Nigerian scams.

“Many people are their own worst enemies because they help the con men by supplying them with millions of e-mail addresses.

“Those cutesy e-mails that arrive in your inbox wishing you a great day or the ones that say you must forward the e-mail to five friends for good luck — are actually created by scammers who are collecting the addresses, thus increasing their chance of catching a live hit.”

Cloete has also worked in the United States doing magic shows and has learnt how casino security works.

Security is wise to all kinds of card tricks, weighted dice, hand signals and even have scanners in the various rooms trying to pick up radio signals that may be broadcast.

While Cloete defends the art of magic, he says that ethical magicians do not like to see ordinary people taken­ for a ride.

Modern faith healers can also be scammers if they consistently perform miracles on stage. U.S. evangelist Peter­ Popoff drew thousands to his rallies with his “miraculous” healings. A team went to investigate this healing phenomenon and were stumped. But finally the secret was revealed when they noticed that his wife collected­ prayer requests before every meeting.

Popoff wore a hearing aid which was actually a radio receiver. His wife would transmit and tell him who had minor ailments and he would focus on those people.

He would be divinely inspired to call them up to the stage for healing. Blind faith and stage fright would conspire to heal them.

Cloete also warns against psychics and says that people would be better off keeping their money in the bank. He has researched a number of famous­ psychics who have been disproved by science.

Cloete mentions John Edward — known for his show Crossing Over.

Cloete says Crossing Over was cancelled in the U.S. before it was screened in South Africa because it lacked credibility­.

According to Scam’d, Edward would make the audience wait for up to two hours before the show started (the show was never broadcast live). In those two hours, he had staff mingle­ with the audience listening and recording their conversations.

They would give Edward these snippets which he would use in his “readings”.

Cloete explains that psychics use various methods to work their clients, and use just enough vague information to keep them interested and hopeful.

One of the first famous people to be sceptical of psychics was Harry Houdini­. He was friendly with the author­, Arthur Conan Doyle, who was married to an alleged psychi­c,­ Lady Jean. They invited Houdini to attend a séance to make contact with Houdini’s dead mother.

Jean wrote him a note, in English, allegedly from his mother, but Houdini­ was unmoved as his mother was a Hungarian Jew and could not speak English.

Houdini spent the rest of his life investigating psychics trying to prove they were frauds.

He uncovered many and his quest led eventually to a cash prize being offered by a prominent science magazine.

Today an offer of $1 million still stands for anyone who can prove the existence of supernatural powers.

Cloete also tells the story of how Uri Geller — the spoon-bending genius — was eventually undone by a group of U.S. magicians. Geller, in his heyday, was a phenomenon. He claimed to be able to bend metal objects with the power of the mind. One woman even claimed he had bent her intrauterine device (IUD) and caused her to become pregnant.

Magicians who were determined to prove he was a fraud managed to prevent Geller using his preprepared cutlery on national television and he was unable to perform any tricks.

Geller­ was furious and tried to sue them when he was exposed, but his case failed.

Cloete says that most people are motivated and then caught out by two main things — greed and fear.

“They always want something for free, or believe that they deserve more. The other motivator is the fear that if they don’t do something then something bad will happen.”

He mentioned the bank scams that have appeared recently. A bank client­ receives an e-mail telling them that their Internet banking has been suspended because someone is trying to access the account. The e-mail then asks for verification details — name, ID, address and banking details. The unsuspecting person is terrified that money is being stolen and immediately complies.

Bingo! He or she has just furnished the scammer with all the details needed­ to create a new identity.

Cloete says he has seen a scam involving job recruiting where fake job agents pose as recruiters offering exotic­ jobs overseas.

“They get many applications, then they respond saying that the applicants need to send them a processing fee and they will pay for the applicant’s plane fare and visa. The poor person pays several thousand rand and eventually realises that it’s all a con.”

Cloete says that one of the biggest cons this decade was the balance bracelet marketed under a variety of names. This plastic bangle, with a hologram sticker, claimed to improve the body’s balance and a number of other health benefits.

Yet despite scientific evidence that the bangle had no effects whatsoever the marketing agents used and paid celebrities to talk positively about the bangle.

The sale of the bangle has been banned in several countries and yet can still be bought in South Africa.

Cloete himself was caught when his credit card was skimmed at a restaurant.

“No one is immune. We must be vigilant all the time.”

• Scam’d retails for R240. If you would like to purchase a copy e-mail trish.beaver@witness.co.za

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