Online fraud is still fraud

Did you know the word ‘gullible’ doesn’t appear in the dictionary? And if you fell for that ancient line, I have some magic beans to sell you.

I had occasion today to use Western Union to send some money to the US for something I am doing at the moment and I noticed on the company’s website that it had some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) prominently displayed in a panel on the right hand side of the screen. Most of these were the kind of thing you’d expect, but in amongst them were the following:

Q: Are you sending money to claim lottery or prize winnings?

Q: Are you sending money because you were “guaranteed” a credit card or loan?

Q: Are you responding to an Internet or phone offer that you aren’t sure is honest?

Q: Are you sending money to someone you don’t know well or whose identity you can’t verify?

Now, I’m amazed by this. Are there really people out there naive enough to do any of the above? Presumably there are, or Western Union wouldn’t feel the need to highlight these as problems. When it comes to Internet scams, the country that’s become synonymous with the problem is Nigeria. Why I don’t know, but the so called Nigerian 419 scam has become incredibly common. This scam is named after section 419 of the Nigerian penal code and usually takes the form of a poorly written letter from the wife of a recently deceased government minister or banker who has $200 million to shift who wants to borrow your bank account and is willing to pay up a couple of million to you for the privilege.

They’re usually badly written and formulaic and so transparent, they’re funny.

I think I’ve received at least 20 of them in the last year alone, and like all spam, you have to presume the people that send them out wouldn’t bother if they didn’t occasionally bag a victim. I can’t help but imagine it’s the elderly or mentally infirm that fall for it, but it can be extremely sinister. Check this out, taken from

Be careful. This scam can be physically dangerous as well as dangerous to your finances. Victims are almost always requested to travel to Nigeria or a border country to complete a transaction. Victims are often told that a visa will not be necessary to enter the country. The Nigerian scam artists may then bribe airport officials to pass the victims through Immigration and Customs. Because it is a serious offense in Nigeria to enter without a valid visa, the victim’s illegal entry may be used by the scam artists as leverage to coerce the victims into releasing funds. Violence and threats of physical harm may be employed to further pressure victims. In June of 1995, an American was murdered in Lagos, Nigeria, while pursuing a 4-1-9 scam, and numerous other foreign nationals have been reported as missing.

If you’re of a cynical nature with a sick sense of humour, you may be interested to know about the wonderful world of 419 scam baiters. These guys deliberatly reply to these scam e-mails with the express intention of seeing how long they can string the scammer along for. Why? Well, in their own words at the website

What is scambaiting? Well, put simply, you enter into a dialogue with scammers, simply to waste their time and resources. Whilst you are doing this, you will be helping to keep the scammers away from real potential victims and screwing around with the minds of deserving thieves.

It doesn’t matter if you are new to this sport or a hardened veteran; if you are wasting the time of a scammer, or frustrating them in any way well that’s good enough for us, and we would welcome you to join with our now very large community.

If you’ve got some time to spare, go look through some of the websites that list the exploits of scam baiters – some of them are very very funny. Particularly the ones in which the baiters manage to persuade the criminals behind these frauds to send pictures of themselves holding up pieces of card with key phrases written on them, in order to ‘prove’ their bone fides. Some of them are very funny. You would almost feel sorry for them if they weren’t engaging in shamelessly exploitative behaviour.

Review: Innocent when you dream

Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews, edited by Mac Montandon, Orion Books, €21.90.
(By Alex Meehan, Published Sunday, February 26, 2006 in The Sunday Business Post)

Listening to Tom Waits’ music has the ability to make you feel cooler than you actually are. Innocent When You Dream, a selection of the many interviews that Waits has given over the years, sees Mac Montandon take us inside the world of one of America’s most enigmatic songwriters.

Waits’ music is keenly observed and often bizarre, but never boring. He is best known for his distinctive baritone foghorn voice and for his penchant for utilising debris he’s found in junkyards as percussive instruments on his records. He’s a rarity in the modern musical mix: a clever man who plays interesting music, isn’t afraid to use his intellect and is genuinely amusing.

This is the same guy who, when questioned about his on-air drinking, retorted to a disapproving TV interviewer: ‘‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” In 1977, he remarked: ‘‘I’ve never met anyone who made it with a chick because they own a Tom Waits album. I’ve got all three, and it’s never helped me.”

His eventful career has spanned three decades, and Innocent When You Dream is a record of that time, albeit through the filtered pages of his collected interviews. With a foreword from Pixies frontman Frank Black and contributions culled from the pages of Newsweek, Zig Zag, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and the NME, this is what life looks like from the other side of the interviewer’s notebook.

The book is split into three parts with interviews covering different sections of his career, interspersed with the odd poetic contribution from Charles Bukowski and contributions from famous fans like Elvis Costello.

Part One covers the 1970s and the first stage of Waits’ career. This Waits is heavily influenced by the Beat movement and Jack Kerouac and his music shares the limelight with his swaggering, hard-drinkin’, hard-smokin’ crooner persona.

In Part Two, Waits’ marriage to songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan – a script editor he met while working on his acting career – takes centre stage, along with three of his most significant albums: Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years. Waits has now calmed down somewhat, to the extent that he has even given up the booze.

By Part Three, the interviews become increasingly entertaining, if less revealing, as Waits has adopted the media management technique of answering interviewers’ questions with interesting facts he has amassed in his notebook about the natural world.

A book like Innocent When You Dream is aimed at the fanatical Waits fan, but arguably there isn’t any other kind. You either love the guy, haven’t heard of him or just don’t get it. Waits is an enigmatic figure, the Hunter S Thompson of music, and he’s purposefully constructed an impenetrable persona about himself.

While we don’t get to find out too much about him in the book – Brennan, his songwriting partner and muse, remains hidden throughout – we do get to trace the development of Tom Waits’ thought processes as he grows older.

In the first interview, he’s a 24-year-old wild man, a barely housetrained musical hobo sitting nervously in the corner, but by the end of the book, he’s a settled fifty-something with a wife and kids.

Intriguingly, he has retained his dangerous edge for all this time. As a book, Innocent When You Dream is a middling effort, but that largely couldn’t be helped. Waits is an entertaining subject, with a well known penchant for lying through his teeth in interviews.

He is incredibly witty, but has a tendency to repeat his bons mots to sequential interviewers. So, combine the entertaining falsehoods with witty comebacks and the ubiquitous background material, and soon you start feeling like you might have read this bit before.

That said, in some ways, this is the book’s strongest point. No official autobiography of Waits exists, so this is as close as you’ll get to one. The interviews collected in Innocent When You Dream form a record of his career, music and personal life from 1974 through to 2004.

If nothing else, it’s an illuminating record of what it must be like to have to deal with the media from Waits’ perspective, or, as he puts it: ‘‘I deal with the media exactly the same way I deal with the cops – nervously.”

Gun nuts redux

Hmm, The search frenzy is powering on as my blog traffic stats remain ridiculously high. In my wordpress stats page, I can see the search terms that have brought people to this page. I won’t bore you with that, but I just wanted to point out that not just one but three people arrived at my blog yesterday after running searches on the following sentence:

“Guns don’t kill people, i kill people”

Hmm. One oddball I could understand, but three?

More reviews

As you can see, I’m slowly reposting some of the archives from my old blog here. Even though some people will have read these before, I’m reposting them because I want an archive at this blog rather than at the old one. Eventually when everything is taken from the old one, I’ll try to have it deleted.

Review: Samurai William by Giles Milton

Review: Samurai William by Giles Milton
(Review published Sunday, June 09, 2002, reviewed by Alex Meehan)


In 1598, an English man named William Adams set sail for Japan as pilot of a Dutch expedition with five ships and 100 men. Lured by the thought of lucrative silk and spice trades, the Europeans hoped to make their fortune and return with enough cash to secure their futures.

However the journey proved extremely difficult, and when Adams eventually landed in Japan in 1600 after 20 months at sea, four ships had been lost and just 24 crew had survived. Those that did make it were suffering from scurvy and dysentery — only six could stand and several died the week after they arrived.

Giles Milton’s Samurai William is the story of this epic voyage to Japan and the subsequent events that took place during Adams’s 20-year stay in the country, with a special focus on his spectacular rise in stature in the court of the feudal Shogun, or ruler of Japan, Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Milton’s account of the trip makes for unsettling reading. Sailors of this period did not yet know that fresh fruit prevented scurvy, and so many died painfully on long sea journeys.

Standard rations consisted of salted meat and biscuits which were frequently infested with weevils. This was bulked up with whatever fresh food could be gathered en route, although boiled rats and mice also featured when stores ran low.

In 1600, there were no reliable maps of the Pacific and the Far East, and navigational techniques were still extremely rudimentary. As a result, the route taken by Adams’s expedition involved sailing down the coast of Africa, across the Atlantic, through the Magellan Straits and across the Pacific to Hawaii before finally reaching Japan.

Europeans had arrived in Japan some time previously — most notably Jesuit missionaries intent on converting the natives to Catholicism. The Jesuits had told the ruling Shogun that all of Europe was united in Roman Catholicism under the authority of the Pope, and that all rulers in Europe deferred to him.

Needless to say, the priests weren’t too impressed when the Dutch and English Protestants aboard Adams’s boat arrived, and tried to have them crucified. But Shogun Ieyasu was intrigued by the tales of political division which Adams told, and invited him to court to educate him in European politics as well as shipbuilding and navigational techniques.

Much to the displeasure of the religious orders in Japan, Adams rose in stature to become a trusted confidant of Ieyesu and he was eventually honoured with the title of Samurai and Hatamoto, or Lord, complete with country estate and retainers.

After 13 years as the only Englishman in Japan, Adams was longing for the company of his countrymen. But he was horrified when the next batch of English seamen eventually arrived — he thought them smelly, bad mannered and uncouth; they in turn thought Adams had gone native.

He had adopted the local customs of bathing daily, as well as washing and oiling his hair. He dressed in silk kimonos, had a large retinue of servants and carried the signature daisho, or twin swords, of the Japanese ruling samurai class. Most shockingly, he had married and had children by a local Lord’s daughter, despite having a wife and daughter back home in London.

By contrast the newcomers had been on a ship for two years without a wash, had lived on rats, were suffering from scurvy and were intent on boozing and whoring once they hit dry land.

While Milton’s book purports to be about William Adams, it would probably be more accurate to describe it as an intensely readable account of the first trading missions to Japan.

Much space is given to documenting other voyages to the region at the time, key among them the Dutch East India Company’s efforts to establish trading bases around the Far East.

Much of the book is constructed from the records and logs left by the sea captains and pilots of the day, and so also provides an intriguing insight into the workings of feudal Japan and the attitudes of European travellers to this unique island nation.

Adams’s story was the inspiration for James Clavell’s epic novel Shogun, and the subsequent 1970s TV series of the same name starring Richard Chamberlain. It’s easy to see why, as it is a fascinating tale.

Giles Milton has managed to provide a complex history lesson in the form of an engaging narrative. Anyone interested in the mysteries of the East or in the cultural make-up of the inscrutable Japanese will find this an engaging read.

Review: Prey by Michael Crichton

Prey by Michael Crichton, Harper Collins, €17.35
(Review published Sunday, January 12, 2003, The Sunday Business Post, review by Alex Meehan.)

When Jurassic Park became one of the biggest hits of the 1990s, scientists bemoaned the fact that the story’s nightmare scenario of the return of the dinosaurs set back the image of genetic engineering by ten years.

With Michael Crichton’s latest techno-thriller, Prey, those in the know are already levelling the same accusations. The plot follows a tried and trusted Crichton formula — meddling scientists have opened a technological can of worms in the misguided pursuit of profit.

This time however, instead of giant dinosaurs running amok, microscopic nanotechnology robots have escaped from a secure research laboratory in the Nevada desert and are threatening to engulf the world.

The story centres on an out-of-work Silicon Valley programmer, Jack Forman, and begins by detailing his marital difficulties with wife Julia. She works for the mysterious Xymos Corporation, and has started putting in odd hours.

Jack suspects she is having an affair and so jumps at the chance to work for Xymos himself, troubleshooting a state of the art computer system using software he originally helped design.

The meat of the story takes place at the Xymos facility in the remote desert, where it emerges that ground-breaking research into the use of nanotechnology to create remote controlled spy technology has gone horribly wrong.

Millions of microscopic nanobots have escaped the facility and are lying in wait for their creators outside the safety of the lab. Jack, along with the usual mix of scientist types, is trapped inside and is faced with the problem of killing off the nanobots before it’s too late.

Nanotechnology is still in its infancy as a technology, but the premise is that machines can be made so small that they could, for example, be used inside the human body for medical purposes.

Prey explores the idea that such atom-sized machines could be controlled using computer software, replicating the characteristics of animals, most notably predators and prey.

But the nanobots in Prey start to reproduce like bacteria and create man-sized swarms, and also develop the ability to evolve. The swarms appear and disappear at will and can float through keyholes and under doors, but most worrying of all is that they start to eat living things in order to reproduce.

For Jack Forman, a potential solution comes in the form of interpreting the programming behind the techno-bugs. They act like animals, so if you know how animals act you can fool the swarm. At least for a while.

Prey isn’t an awful read, it’s just not as good as you expect from someone like Crichton. It has its high points — his descriptions of characters working against the clock help to build tension, while the plot development at the beginning is well handled.

But the characters are mostly one-dimensional stereotypes with little engaging depth. Lengthy sections recall phone conversations and most of the time the plot is as transparent as a mediocre airport novel.

In addition, large tracts of text are given over to lengthy explanations of the technology involved in this type of research, as well as the philosophical implications of its use. While this is a clunky technique that interrupts the flow of the book, it has also left Crichton open to criticism for other reasons.

The specialist website Nanotechnology Now said in its review of Prey that the science was “not just wrong, it’s stupid”.

This would be forgivable in the name of a good plot, but sadly Prey does not read like the latest offering of an experienced and extremely successful author. It would make a fine lightweight holiday read, but don’t expect to be blown away.

Interestingly, the movie version of this book is already in pre-production and should be in cinemas by 2004. Unlike Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs though, swarms of semi-invisible nanobots don’t immediately spring to mind as ideal silver screen baddies.

Dalkey fears goats starved to death

While researching a story today, I fell victim to the narcissistic temptation to search for myself on the net (my name that is, not a sense of spiritual purpose) and one of the responses was this story – this is the first piece I had published in 1996 as paid journalism.

Ahh, the good old days, when the Irish Times would let me past the front desk!



Dalkey fears goats starved to death

EFFORTS are under way to determine the cause of the death of 20 goats on Dalkey Island, Co Dublin, amid suspicions that they have starved.

Only a male and a female remain of the historic herd that first started grazing on the island more than 200 years ago.

A vet attached to Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown council believes the animals were probably killed by an infection, according to Mr Donal O’Neill, senior administrative officer with Dun Laoghaire parks department.

But there is local speculation that the goat herd may have starved to death. “It was a very dry summer last year, and there isn’t much vegetation on the island,” one local man said. “There are also a lot of rabbits and birds. A herd of 22 goats is quite a strain on an island that small. I think they starved to death.”

According to local people, the goats were being kept alive by sympathisers sailing out and leaving hay on the island.

The council says that, because the goats are wild, they were left to themselves more or less. “Some of them have died, yes. We have a vet that goes over every fortnight and he was there last week and they were fine. Some had died of natural causes, like old age, but that’s normal,” said Mr O’Neill.

A diver swimming in the area earlier this week reported seeing the bodies of several dead goats floating in the water.

“When this was reported, we sent the vet over again to check and most of the goats were dead. There are two left, a male and a female,” said Mr O’Neill.

A council vet has taken samples from the dead animals for analysis. It has no plans to introduce more goats to the island.

Ms Therese Cunningham, of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said she was distressed and concerned about the deaths.

“The goats have been a feature of Dalkey’s heritage for many years.

The goats have been on the island since the Martello tower was built in Napoleonic times. They were originally put there to provide milk for soldiers garrisoned at the tower.

Taken from . . .