It’s an unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of running a non-profit working in developing countries, that we find ourselves the target of scammers who impersonate desperate passengers in order to extract money from us. Some of their stories sound believable at first, others fall apart after asking simple questions, and the rest, well, let’s just say that some would-be scammers have fertile imaginations. We’ve become pretty good at spotting them, by analyzing the many available information sources, by investigating their stories, and by experience and intuition. To provide readers with an introduction to this facet of our day-to-day work then, we’re sharing with you a recent scam attempt and a little of our investigation.
The message as we received it
We received a message on Telegram, which you can read in the screenshot. It has a set of pictures, and the following text:
Good evening, I’m [redacted] based in [redacted]. Sometime last year my village mate helped me set up my own community through transrescue and that’s how I got your number. She is [redacted], right now she is out of reach. The reason I have contacted you directly, we are going to [big city] reasons being the community here does not want us any more you understand right? I have 2 trans men 2 intersex kids and 3 gays. Let me get straight to the point we do community service some programme [redacted] organised for us bead making and weaving, even bed making. We just sold all that stuff and rented a house in [redacted], it’s 4 bedroom. Local chief wants us to go away ASAP, that why I’m here, can you help us relocated? I need to get a lorry carry all our belongings to [big city] that’s all.
Along with the text was a series of images, of which we’ve posted a screenshot. We’ll refer to them as images 1 through 5 in the following analysis, but first of all it’s worth looking at the story itself.
How it all falls apart
This was one of those scam attempts which caused us to smell a rat when we first opened it, as we can tell you from experience, running a house as a refuge for queer people is no small undertaking. If someone we had been associated with were doing that, we’d know about it. We’d have almost certainly been financing it, and we’d know the people within it by both name and face. The idea that the person mentioned in the message could have been running such an operation without our knowledge is not credible. In addition the industries suggested, bead work and basket making, seem calculated to appeal to an imagined European idea of what Africans might do. As enterprises for a queer refuge, they stretch credibility.
Turning to the images, our attention was first attracted to image 5, the dormitory. It’s what we’d recognise as basic but comfortable accommodation, and it might just have passed muster but for a few details. Have a look at that window first, it’s a unitary double-glazed window placed in a deep embrasure, those walls are thick. It’s simply not an African window or building but a European one designed for a cold climate. Even the beds and interior aren’t quite right, in that while pine isn’t unknown in the country this is supposed to be from, it would be unusual to see so much of it.
As you might expect, we turned to a reverse image search to confirm our suspicions. The dormitory in image 5 does indeed provide comfortable accommodation, however it’s not in Africa but in Ireland. It’s at the Black Sheep Hostel, Killarney, and it’s repeated across many accommodation booking websites.
Not unexpectedly, the story falls completely apart as we search the rest of the images. Image 1 is a pair of Liberian gang members in a story about a scam targeting gay men, while image 2 is a pair of Nigerian gay men on Facebook. Image 3 is a Wikipedia image of Edisto island sweetgrass baskets, and image 4 can be found in the beadwork article on Encyclopedia Britannica. We’ve presented them in very low resolution for illustrative purposes of the scam only, as these remain copyrighted images.
So welcome to a typical day running a small non-profit, this scam attempt took up a while of our time if not fortunately our money.