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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’re no strangers to uncovering scams. We’ve written extensively about job scams, conference scams, medical scams and even took a deep dive into a particularly bizarre scam involving a spiritual white boy, South African business exec Tokyo Sexwale, and a missing R41 quadrillion. 

But in a cruel twist of irony all this knowledge about scams and fact-checking did not stop me from falling victim to a scam myself. 

Well, almost falling victim. I was lucky enough to catch on to the scam in time, so the only thing I lost in this process was time and a bit of my sanity.

But I realise others may not be as lucky. Gone are the days when scams mainly targeted the elderly who were unfamiliar with technology. A study by online verification service Social Catfish showed that in 2021, internet users in the US aged 20 and younger were the fastest growing victims of internet scams, surging by 156% since 2017. And a 2021 survey by consumer credit reporting agency TransUnion found that 45% of respondents in South Africa were targets of online fraud schemes, with 8% of them falling victim. 

My experience taught me that no one is safe from online scams. So what happened to me, how did I figure it out, and what are the warning signs that you can look out for? 

It’s all in the detail

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 this later.

The scam itself began with an email from a magazine called World’s Leaders. They asked to feature me as part of an article they were doing on five black women who were successful in their respective fields. 

I had earlier received a similar request on professional networking website LinkedIn from a reputable media organisation that wanted to profile a number of black women professionals across industries as part of their Women’s Month special edition. In South Africa Women’s Month is observed in the month of August.

I mistakenly assumed the email was from the same media organisation that had approached me on LinkedIn.

Although I didn’t recognise the World’s Leaders magazine, I reasoned that I couldn’t know every publication out there. And besides, I’m nowhere near accomplished enough to be featured by the likes of Forbes

So I did a quick check and skimmed through the magazine’s website. Some of the cover stories I saw featured actual business people who had clearly been interviewed. This was my first major mistake. Skim-reading led me to miss out on details that should have been immediate red flags.

Shortly after agreeing to be interviewed, I received an invoice for US$2,000 (roughly R32,000). This is when alarm bells started to go off. I knew that no genuine publication would require an interviewee to pay for what was essentially positive reportage. To do so would be a huge ethical violation. So I decided to do some more digging into World’s Leaders magazine. And well … It was eye-opening.

Fake magazine linked to vanity scams 

The first major red flag came from the actual website. Although the people featured on previous covers did exist, the articles about them were of questionable quality

And none of the people in the leadership organogram seem to exist outside of the magazine. I could find no photos or other mentions of top leaders at the magazine, including their supposed editor-in-chief, Steve Sanchez. This seemed odd for a high ranking person in the media industry. Compare this to other editors-in-chief, such as Adriaan Basson from News24 or Methil Renuka, managing editor of Forbes Africa. They have both been interviewed by other media houses and are mentioned by websites and articles outside of their own publications. 

I also took a closer look at the physical address World’s Leaders had given me, and which was also listed on their LinkedIn page – 3296 Westerville Rd, Columbus, Ohio in the US. On Google Maps, this address showed a run-down looking parking lot and a list of small businesses with no mention of the magazine anywhere. Extremely odd for a magazine that, according to its LinkedIn page, is big enough to have offices in London and India, with its main headquarters at this Columbus, Ohio address. 

Most interesting of all was that in Google search results for World’s Leaders magazine I saw references to a Global Business Leaders magazine. This magazine appears to have a similar format and target audience. Like World’s Leaders magazine, there is zero indication on Google Maps at the address listed on the website that the magazine's offices are there. Instead it shows what appears to be a residential building in Atlanta, Georgia with a few small shops. 

People have also called out Global Business Leaders as a scam. On question-and-answer website Quora, users revealed that they had been approached by the magazine in a similar way to how I was. Some were also asked to pay a “nominal fee” of $2,500. 

“The Global Business Leaders Mag is completely fraud and spam, running there business from India and fooling people by using foreign names,” one comment reads

“They are asking money of $2500 but when I asked for there office address so I can go and deposit the check directly to them, they were making excuses and continuously asking me send it to bank.”

A 2021 article confirmed that the magazine was a scam, promising potential interviewees publicity on the magazine social media channels in exchange for a $2,500 nominal fee. It did this using fake engagement numbers

It sounded to me like this was the exact same scam I was targeted by, rebranded under a new name after people began calling it out. 

This type of scam is also known as a “vanity scam”, in which people are approached for awards or recognition by organisations and are then asked to pay for them. These scams tend to be a bit more sophisticated than typical scams as the scammers have to put more effort into making themselves appear legitimate. This means that even the more sceptical among us are more likely to fall for one

Targeted scams

So how did this happen? 

For starters, they’d done their homework. They knew my name, race, the organisation I worked for and my job title. They knew that I had recently made the 2022 Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans list and were able to use all this information in their proposal to me. 

They also attempted to contact my managers after I stopped replying to their emails, at which point I told them that I knew it was a scam and they needed to leave me alone. Thankfully, they did, but the fact that they knew who I answered to and their contact details shows how much research they had done. 

They didn’t just ask me for money. They asked me to fill out an interview questionnaire and send them high-quality photos of myself and my company’s logo. (I didn’t send any of these things.) 

Looking at their website makes it clear that they had asked for this information specifically to create one of their authentic-looking magazine covers and profile pieces in order to hook other targets. And it’s possible Africa Check’s logo would have been added to their page of affiliated brands in order to make themselves look more legitimate. A quick glance at this page reveals a host of real companies including technology company Samsung and Arizona State University. This all helps add to the website’s credibility. 

More seriously, the information they asked me for might have helped them commit identity theft had I given in. If I clicked on any of the links they sent me, they could have infected my laptop with malicious software, or malware which could have helped them steal sensitive data. 

I also think that my mental state at the time played a role in my inability to identify the scam earlier. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that in times of crisis “affected people take in information, process information, and act on information differently than they would during non-crisis times”. In other words, times of stress can lead to poor decision making

In short? Research, ask questions, and never hand over any money

So what are the takeaways here? 

  • Be very, very careful of any company that approaches you online even if they appear to know personal information about you. Perform Google searches on the specific people who contact you and remember that if they do not appear to exist outside of the company they claim to represent, it is a red flag.
     
  • Use Google Maps to search for any physical address they may send you to ensure that the business is actually located there. Searches on user-based websites like Quora and Reddit may also show you if other people have already flagged the organisation as a scam.
     
  • Most importantly, be suspicious of any requests for money. Reputable organisations will typically not ask you to pay for reportage in a publication, awards, job opportunities, or to 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 are going through a particularly stressful time in your life it’s best not to agree to any new propositions. 

I’ve certainly learnt to be far more discerning from this experience. Hopefully you’ll learn from my mistakes and exercise caution when approached for what seems like a golden opportunity.

Further Reading

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