Season of scams Kamila Hyat


When we see the desperate poverty that now lies all around us, and at times affects those whom we know and trust, there is naturally a desperate urge to help. After all, what choice do we have when former white-collar workers approach with unhidden embarrassment and anxiety speaking about jobs that have suddenly been pulled away, by workshops, by individuals, even by corporates, leaving them with nothing to fall back on and families still to feed.

Charity exists and has already helped millions of people who had nothing else to turn to. However, not only during the pandemic but also afterwards we need a better social protection network. None exists for now.

Possibly because we know this we have become highly vulnerable to the many scams that appear to be taking place. The number of these scams has increased dramatically since before the pandemic arrived. More and more people are finding innovative ways to make money, in some cases by ripping people off. Too many fall victims to these gambit . Both big and small scale rackets take place.

Possibly the most susceptible are people who wish to help but do not have large amounts of money themselves. The government does not appear able to cope. It is perhaps a testimony to the nature of our country that so many people try to take advantage of a tragedy. People have received phone calls asking for a few thousand rupees for a short period from those who identify themselves as friends of friends, former acquaintances or former employees. Most citizens, if they are able to, choose to trust rather than risk someone or his children going hungry for the sake of a relatively small amount of money. Most scammers choose what to ask for cleverly.

But if one considers one con artist calling hundreds or even thousands of people and seeking a sum of a few thousand rupees his/her earnings could be quite considerable. The same amount could keep afloat a family or more than one for a considerable period of time. It is not feasible to expect individuals to make their own checks, but perhaps more warnings and advice are required.

It is true people are ripped off all around the year and under all kinds of conditions. But the knowledge that an increasing number of extremely unfortunate people out there were turned away by employers without a penny because of the virus means people make an extra effort to help. According to global data, it is the elderly in all conditions who are more susceptible scams. Perhaps they are accustomed to a better world where so much dishonesty was not commonplace. Sadly that is not the case any longer especially not in our country.

Oddly enough at the same time we see a growth in morality and religiosity in the country. The new curriculum being promoted by the government places a very high stress on Islamiyat even up to MA level. How important this is compared to the need to develop critical thinking skills among young people and improve the quality of research they are able to produce at higher levels or develop more ethical behaviour is a matter for debate. But we do know that the education introduced under Ziaul Haq had no impact on improving morality, integrity or civilized behaviour in society. Many who have lived through these decades would agree Pakistan was on the whole a considerably more honest place in the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s than is the case today.

It could possibly be argued that the anonymity and outreach granted by mobile telephones and social media makes it easier to reach a large number of people quickly and with very little effort, even checking their profile. The kind of situation that exists today is a perfect one for con-artists to exploit.

People need warnings about these scams. Security agencies need to look into them, especially with rumours of extremely large-scale scams, some involving the setting up of fake organisations. We need to remember that most of our people are extremely generous and need help to protect themselves. Given the growing number of conmen, and undoubtedly women, we are seeing in action more needs to be done. We already have laws against cyber crime. In addition, mobile phone companies can track down numbers used for fraud, and penalise those they are registered with. Such deterrence is important, in fact essential.

What is most important is that people be encouraged to act as far as possible through well-established charities. Of course there will be some exceptions, for neighbours, employees, relatives and friends. This is to be expected, and even appreciated. Charity is a highly debatable means to help those in need. But sometimes it cannot be avoided. Now is such a time. It is also a time when we must save people from being ripped off and in the future work towards building a welfare state which can keep all its citizens safe. Our prime minister has promised us such a state.

The failure to deliver is undoubtedly a factor in what we see all around us. Some of those seeking illegitimate ways may see no other ways to support families that demand food. For others it could be a prank. Groups of teenage boys have been identified in some cases. Some from affluent families. Whatever the reality, whatever the motive, this is a crime that can hurt others. It needs to be brought to a halt.