Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I Dont Like This

Last Updated: Saturday, 12 September 2009, 6:38 GMT    Previous Page
By Ethan Zuckerman's
A few years back, I was in Accra, Ghana with friends who’d helped me organize and fund Geekcorps – they were visiting our projects in the country, staying in one of the country’s nicer hotels on the beach outside of Accra. They received a phonecall one evening from someone who claimed he was the pimp of a prostitute the man had hired and he was demanding payment for his coworker’s services. My friend hadn’t hired a prostitute, and contacted the front desk of the hotel, who explained that this was a pretty common scam. The scammer hopes to reach a tourist who had hired a prostitute and saw himself as a potential target for extortion, or a person who hadn’t hired a prostitute but was sufficiently embarrassed by the prospect of being confronted in a hotel lobby that he pays hush money.
The scam works because some tourists do come to Accra to pay money for sex, and because some of these folks stay at nice hotels. And because prostitution is illegal, it’s a great opportunity for extortion – I suspect that there’s probably also a practice of following people from bars where prostitutes are common, then threatening to turn them into the police if extortion demands aren’t met. Finally, because sex is a subject most of us don’t like to talk about with strangers, it tends to leave us flustered and unsettled when accusations are made, leaving us more vulnerable to making poor decisions, like paying an extortion fee.
I was thinking about this story because Global Voices ran a fantastic piece on a disturbing new phenomenon happening online in Ghana and Kenya – gay personal ads designed to recruit robbery and kidnapping victims. Easy Track Ghana, a website for gay and lesbian traveller to Ghana, quoted in the story, explains that this has become a lucrative business for internet scammers:
…there are some Internet cafes that are *completely* devoted to this type of activity. It is truly a business, with finders fees paid for arranging a meeting with a foreigner, and 11 and 12 year old year-old boys watching pornography en masse and learning how to chat ‘gay’. On the Internet, anybody can be anything, so you really do not know who you are chatting with.
Some scams focus on building online relationships, then asking for money for help in an emergency. Others try to entice foreigners to Ghana, engage in sex with their victims, then call the police, sometimes presenting the used condoms as evidence – the scammer might ask the victim for a payment to avoid police involvement, or might share the bribe provided to the police. The most dangerous ones – and the ones more likely to be focused on local victims – propose meetings in out of the way places (often in Tema, a city near Accra that’s generally unfamiliar to most Accra residents) and then rob the victims when they arrive. Because homosexual sex is illegal in Ghana (as it is in many African nations) there’s little resource to the law after one of these robberies. As Haute Haiku suggests in the post on Global Voices, this type of scam is particularly likely to ensare gay people who are just coming out and trying to discover the gay scene.
A number of websites discuss this phenomenon in Ghana and Kenya and offer worthwhile, practical advice. Other take a more direct approach – Fakers2Go offers a photo gallery and profiles of men believed to be scammers posting their profiles on gay dating sites, and asks anyone else victimized to post information on the website as well.
The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) is trying to determine the extent of blackmailing schemes, asking victims to call a hotline and report anonymously. They report that victims have been asked for sums of money ranging from $6 to $25,000. Because GALCK is so involved with this issue and willing to defend victims in court, scammers have evidently taken to asking potential victims if they’ve heard of the organization and backing off if they have.
It strikes me that this story can be read either as an extremely depressing narrative about how human beings treat one another over the Internet, or as a testament to the power of virtual communities. I’ve written and spoken in the past about 419 scams as evidence that the connections we can build over the Internet are at least as likely to be negative as positive ones. It’s no surprise to most of us that random individuals we’ve never met before they contact us on the Internet seldom mean us well. But gay dating sites are a slightly different story – they’re designed to introduce people who’ve never met before, and there is, I suspect, an assumption of a common ruleset for people participating within the community (i.e., if you’re here, you’re probably gay and looking to meet someone.) This sort of community norm may be a dangerous thing in open spaces like the Internet – if you’re assuming that everyone’s motives on the site are the same as yours, you’re susceptible to attack by someone abusing the site for fraud.
But it’s the response by groups like GALCK and Fakers2Go that strikes me as extremely encouraging. Imagine if eBay had begun without a feedback mechanism and a community, say of record collectors, began monitoring bad trades and developing a website to identify scammers. Scammers would surely change names, but there would likely evolve a “whitelist” of known participants in the community who hadn’t defrauded people, as well as blacklists, and there might emerge a karma system more nuanced than eBay’s positive/negative method targetted to the specific needs of a community. (It’s pretty common in record collecting to buy a record that isn’t quite the condition it was advertised as being in. Is this a mostly satisfactory transaction? A completely bad one? Disagreement on condition between buyer and seller or a form of fraud? A community based rating system might address these issues…)
I’ll be interested to see whether community sites emerge to try to police and mitigate the dangers of gay sex scams. The relative anonymity of the internet, the dangers of the scams and the benefits of removing predators from a community seems like the perfect recipe for this sort of community policing – I’d expect to see dating sites encourage this sort of policing as well. What would be more disappointing – but certainly possible – is dating sites eliminating profiles from Kenya and Ghana in the hopes of protecting people from scams at the expense of actual gay individuals in these countries looking to meet people.
The story was also a reminder for me of what Global Voices is able to do that can be difficult for other media outlets to replicate. Because we’ve got an author who’s integrated into the African GBLT community, we were able to find a topic of community discussion that hasn’t crossed into mainstream media yet. While this story has been amplified by a gay-focused blog, I’ll be very interested to see whether it crosses over into mainstream media.


And another story from Ghana...!

1 comment:

spiralx said...

In Egypt, and a couple of other Arabic states, the situation is even worse. State security set up liaisons on-line, using both fake and genuine meeting sites, and then arrest the gay men who turn up (it is mostly aimed at men, as usual - women are invisible - again!).

It comes down, as you say, gug, to policing for ourselves, and relying on people you know and trust to keep you out of danger.

(Not so different to the rest of life, then!).

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