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Larry Zicklin unveils the multi-billion-dollar online scamming enterprise

Screenshot from Zoom meeting

Larry Zicklin, Baruch College’s business school namesake, discussed the implications of the multi-billion-dollar global enterprise of online scamming in the latest installment of his webinar series on March 12.

Zicklin began the webinar by asking Alain Claude Tambe Ebot — assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems and Statistics at Baruch — and Volkan Topalli, a professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University, if there is a universal definition of online scamming. Ebot said there are several types of scams that all have subcategories of scams within them, so it is best not to “conflate them under one umbrella,” but online scams refer to all the categories and do not mean the same thing.

Zicklin asked how big online scamming is and what the dollar amount is, to which Topalli noted that it “is in the multiple billions without a doubt,”  but it is difficult to calculate because there is no crime report and most of the data is held by banks or mobile platform companies.  

Ebot acknowledged that Cameroon began picking up scamming trends from Nigeria and cited two reports that showed most fraudulent links come from Cameroon and most middle schoolers knew someone under the age of 15 who was engaged in scamming, leading scamming to become a “generalized problem.”

When asked if scamming has become socially acceptable in Cameroon, Ebot responded that scammers have “come up with these rationalizations” around control over their lives and perceived themselves fighting back against Western colonization. 

Topalli added that increasing usability on social media platforms makes scamming easier because the processes can be “copied and pasted.”

Additionally, he emphasized that artificial intelligence is making scamming easier by removing the language skill barriers through real-time translation and making email interactions easier. He added that in the next three to four years, the “language skill barrier will be completely gone.”

Ebot said scammers make anywhere from $10-$5,000 per transaction, depending on the amount they scam for. He said scammers will spend their money and then scam again, prompting Zicklin to ask if there are other motivating factors besides money.

Topalli responded by saying a sense of “self-efficacy” comes from exploiting people through skill, especially if they come from a country full of educated and wealthy people. 

The professors noted that in their research, scammers think differently about crimes because they do not see victims’ faces, allowing them to disconnect themselves emotionally. However, when the professors asked scammers if they would scam without the internet, most said they could not due to face-to-face context.

“They just see them [victims] as pieces of information, so they can easily distance themselves from these individuals and claim that ‘well, these victims actually have money anyways because they are in the West,’” Ebot said. “So we asked offenders, ‘Would you engage in scamming if the internet did not exist?’ and most of them said, ‘I don’t think I could do it in a face-to-face context.'” 

After the discussion, Zicklin emphasized that, while not detracting from the crime of scamming, scammers are entrepreneurs because they read the news, see opportunities and translate them “into ways to better themselves.” 

“I’m going to find a way to get to the same place [wealthy with high status] that everyone else around the world is trying to get, and so it is entrepreneurialism because they’re identifying new routes to making money that didn’t exist before,” Topalli told Zicklin. “The only difference is that for them, it’s illegal.” 

To end the webinar, Zicklin was asked in a moderated Q&A session if he has become more or less concerned about online scamming, to which he responded he is more concerned. 

“I’m far more concerned because I see the advances in technology aiding and abetting scamming,” Zicklin told the audience. “It’s going to become more sophisticated; AI is going to contribute to this. I think governments are going to have to start addressing this before it gets out of hand, and perhaps it’s already out of hand.”

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