Thursday, August 19, 2010
IT WAS THE first time for Joseph to travel out of the country. He really thought it was improbable for him to journey beyond the local shores given the meager income that he had. Though he had been in the practice of his profession (he was a dentist) for more than a decade, he had not really gotten enough to give him the luxury of spending some spare money to go on a tour or vacation of sorts. What he earned out of his practice was barely enough to meet both ends meet. Heck, he even could not afford to buy a second hand car. His car would conk out at times he least expected it; he badly needed a replacement. But his limited resources strictly prohibited him from doing so.
As he now roamed his eyes inside the business lounge of Hong Kong’s state-of-art airport, relaxing on the soft couch, munching on some sweet muffins and sipping fresh fruit juice, he still could not believe that he had just had an all-expense paid vacation in Hong Kong. It was, to him, a lifetime experience: a 3-day stay in Holiday Inn, a visit at Hong Kong Disneyland, a trip at the casino, etc. It was simply incredible. He was really lucky to have won the grand prize of the raffle that was conducted two weeks back during the college reunion of his batch. He almost fainted when his ticket number was called. He would have wanted to get instead the cash equivalent of the grand prize, but then, he was told that his prize was non-convertible; the business class plane ticket and hotel accommodation had already been paid. The cash that he could get was the two-hundred US dollar pocket money that he would need while in Hong Kong.
His flight back to Manila was in hour’s time. He saw to it to get to the airport early to avoid any hassle, given the fact that it was his first travel abroad. So far, he had not encountered any, much to his relief. The thing that he wanted to do now was to use the free internet service provided inside the business lounge. There were four computer units with flat-screen monitors, one was busted. The other three were presently being used. Two Caucasian guys appeared oblivious to those who might be wanting to use the internet. They were having some Facebook chat. The third guy, a black one, seemed aware that Joseph also wanted to use the internet. Joseph had caught the black guy looking at him. After a few minutes more, the black guy pulled a USB flash disk from the tower case just below the flat-screen monitor after he had punched some keys in the keyboard. He looked again at Joseph and then stood up.
Joseph got up from where he was sitting and sat on the chair vacated by the black guy. He could hear the white guy beside him emitting some soft cackle. Joseph lost no time in going to the Yahoo website; seconds passed, he was already accessing his email inbox. No, not a thing about his application for immigration in Canada. He had already completed the requirements some four months back, still no movement on his application. Damn. His friend had already gotten his visa the previous week. What could be the reason? They submitted all the documents at the same time. Anyway, there was no rush, he thought. He could still afford to wait for some more months, or even for one year more. He tried to scan the items in his inbox. He smirked when he saw something. Nah, the usual trash emails again. He dragged these items from the inbox to the trash folder. Seeing nothing more of interest, he logged out from his Yahoo account and went to Facebook’s website. He checked his account, read the shoutouts in his Facebook wall, then exited from the website. He yawned, rubbed his eyes and stood up.
As Joseph strode near the food counter to get some green salad, the black guy slowly rose from a corner table where he had seated and promptly sat back to the same spot he had left a while ago. His fingers thumped furiously on the keyboard while his eyes rummaged the flat screen monitor. A minute later, he was talking to someone in his Blackberry; he was talking in his native Yoruba, one of Nigeria’s languages. He was asking from the man at the other end of the line if the username and password he had just sent had arrived at their destination. As soon as he got the confirmation, the black man deleted the software he had uploaded earlier in the same desktop unit. As he prepared to leave, he saw Joseph now walking towards the door of the business lounge.
THE AREA IS located in the southwestern part of the country. As to how much exactly its population, no reliable figure has come up. The local government has put the figure at more than 15 million; this, however, was disputed by another report, which claimed that the area’s population was only at little over than 9 million. One thing is certain, though, that the area, which is the smallest state in Nigeria, is the second most populous in Africa.
Lagos State came into existence in the late 60s. It was then the country’s political capital. In the mid 70s, the capital was moved to Ikeja, another metropolitan area. In the early 90s, the federal government’s seat was formally relocated to Abuja, which is now the country’s capital. Lagos State still remained to be the nation’s most economically important state as it is where Lagos, the nation’s largest urban area, is located.
The World Festival of Black Arts and Culture is a major African event that takes place in Africa, a black world’s affair intended to recapture the origins and authenticity of the African heritage. It was first held in 1966 in Senegal. A decade later, in 1977, the festival was hosted by oil-rich Nigeria. In preparation for this huge event, the Nigerian government invested generously to build thousands of dwelling units and several major avenues in Lagos. This particular area has come to be known as Festac Village or Festac Town, from the acronym FESTAC (Festival of Arts and Culture)(Festac Town is located at a distance of about 10km west of Lagos-Badagry expressway which forms the town’s southern boundary). The effort resulted in the success of the extravagant affair. Afterwards, the government gave the housing units and title deeds to the properties to those who won the balloting that was conducted. In the years that went by, however, Festac Town descended into a state of degeneracy owing to utter government neglect. By the 90s, bad roads, lack of potable water, dilapidated structures, became the regular feature of the town. The dwellers, however, stuck it out there, given the lively economic activity that pervaded in the area. During the early part of the 21st century, a new craze hit Festac Town. Dozens of internet cafes sprouted out like mushrooms all over town. Denizens of these cafes virtually lived there, their main occupation being to send thousands of emails to their intended recipients all over the world. These emails yielded huge returns. Victims were either Americans or Europeans or Asians: they were lured to wire-transfer sums of money on the false promise that they would, in return, get huge amounts or payoffs sourced from unclaimed money or from dormant bank accounts left by deceased depositors or from a cache of gold hidden in some place. Foreign governments and western enforcement agencies (the FBI, Interpol, etc.) have stepped in and have come to refer to these emails as cyber frauds, their senders as cyber scammers. For its part, and basically to show to the world that it has nothing to do with these scams, the Nigerian government began a crackdown. Among its first step was to upgrade its penal law that heavily punishes the scammers. Thus, the designation “419 scam” was born—taken after an article of the Nigerian penal law that punishes these cyber-crimes.
JOSEPH HAD BEEN waiting at the Mall of Asia grounds for already over an hour. The friend he was supposed to meet had not responded to his text messages. He tried ringing up the number but his calls were unanswered. His friend was to help him apply to a dental clinic there at the Mall of Asia. Dental and medical clinics located in that upscale mall flourished, always brimming with patients or clients. It was his chance to upgrade his practice, and so too, his standard of living, if he were to get accepted in the new dental clinic. Feeling bored, he decided to drop by an internet café on the second floor at the north wing of the mall. As he checked his inbox folder, he was surprised to see an email sent by someone from the United Kingdom. He opened the item which reads:
Dear Lucky Winner,
You have won the sum of £10,000 from BBC BRITISH LOTTERY on our 2010 charity bonanza your winning ticket was selected from a Data Base of Internet Email Users from which your Address came out as the winning coupon winning number : 15 28 32 43 44 45 BONUS 20. Provide the following information needed to process your winning claim.
Congratulations once again.
It was sent by the “BBC LOTTERY DEPARTMENT” using the email address arcosempione.cream @fastwebnet.it.
He was wondering how on earth did he win. He explored his brain in an attempt to recall any item or detail in the past that may have led to the sending of this email to him. No, nothing whatsoever, he thought. How would I win when, in the first place, I never joined any lottery? He ignored the email and checked on the other items in his inbox. It was at this time when his battered Nokia N70 phone rang. It was his friend. He exited from his Yahoo account and began to rise from his seat.
The next day, he found another email in his inbox sent by the same sender. He was being told that he had just 10 days to claim his prize otherwise it would be forfeited. Is this for real? he was asking himself. He stood up and paced his room. After finishing his cup of coffee, he went back again to his desktop and replied to the email, asking the sender if there was any truth to the information relative to his “prize”, could the sender send to him the money he just won? He was laughing at himself when he stood up and went to the toilet to take a pee. When he got back to his computer after a few minutes, he was looking at another email from the same source, in response to his inquiry. “Send us your bank account number, the name of the bank, the bank’s SWIFT code and also your name, address, age, sex and country,” were the words he was reading when he opened the email. He was still thinking if all of this shit was true. He pondered for a few minutes. Seeing no harm if ever he would send the details being asked, he hit the reply button and pecked the keyboard. When he was done, he sent his reply email, anticipating that nothing would ever happen afterwards.
AFTER HE GOT out of Manila’s international airport, he boarded an airport taxi that took him to Makati, specifically to Makati Avenue where the hotel he would be staying was located. It was his first time to be in the country. His colleagues had gone ahead of him; they were now enjoying Boracay’s white sand and skimpily-clad women frolicking in the world-famous beach. His plan was to stay for a few days in the metropolis before taking some days of pleasure. Business is important. As he got in his room at the 10th floor of the hotel, he opened his laptop and went directly to their business website. It was already half past five in the afternoon. Great! he almost shouted. He was reading an email in the inbox folder sent by one Joseph Santiago. He was sure this was the man he chanced upon at the airport in Hong Kong. He whipped out his Blackberry from his pocket and dialed. Soon, a voice was speaking from the other line. The man was speaking in Yoruban, their native tongue.
“Joseph,” he said, “Joseph Santiago,” he repeated as he firmly pressed the Blackberry to his ear. “Ja, dit is die naam. Nou, stuur sy rekening slegs 500 US dollars, hom glo dit is vir ware. En ek sal probeer om hom te ontmoet terwyl ek hier. Het jy dit?” (“Yes, that’s the name. Now, send to his account only 500 US dollars, to make him believe this is for real. Then I’ll try to meet him while I’m here. Got it?”) He was now talking in another language, Afrikaans, spoken in South Africa. Conversant as he was in this language (he and his colleague had stayed in Johannesburg for more than half a decade), he at times switched to this language in an attempt to avoid any possible eavesdropping by the federal authorities in Nigeria.
After uttering, “Ja, ek het dit” (“Yes, I got it”), the man at the other end of the line put down his cellphone and resumed his work. He was rubbing his day-old stubble on his chin as he punched the keyboard. It was almost lunchtime there, on that side of the planet. The shabby, ramshackle building where the internet café was housed was thick with unbearable human stench. Only a handful of internet cafés could be found on that side of Fetac Town that provided clean surroundings and late model computer units.
JOSEPH HAD JUST left the car repair shop where, an hour earlier, he had brought his car, an aging ten-year-old maroon-colored Honda Civic. He was already stinking with sweat. He almost left his car in the middle of the road after it petered out again, for the nth time in one month. Fortunately, the car’s engine came to life after he gunned it a dozen tries. He went straight to the repair shop. His main concern now was where would he get the money to cover the repair expenses. This damn car belongs to the junkshop, he muttered to himself. He had only a little over a thousand bucks in his bank account. He proceeded to go to a nearby ATM to get some money and leave just a hundred bucks or so in his account. He was starving, he was feeling weak now. He was stupefied, however, when he found out he had around twenty-two thousand bucks in his account. How did it happen? Shit! He pressed a button on the ATM and out came a small paper showing the balance in his account. Twenty-two thousand seven hundred pesos! He stuffed the paper in his pocket, pushed his ATM card back to the card hole and pecked on the buttons. His face stricken with disbelief, he withdrew twenty thousand and went back to the repair shop. He was re-energized by the thick peso bills now bulging in his wallet. Just how lucky could one get? A while ago, he was on the verge of desperation. Now, he was feeling rich. After an hour, the mechanic finished his task and was now pushing into his pocket a one-thousand bill given by Joseph. Joseph was thinking there must have been an error committed by the bank, an error in crediting the amount in his account. Surely, he would be receiving a notice or a phone call from the bank requiring him to return back the amount. Oh, heck, let them call me. It wasn’t my fault. It’s theirs. Why would I bother myself with the mistake of others? He was now thinking of possible schemes or tactics so that he could delay reimbursing the amount back to the bank once he received such notice. For now, he relished the taste of the Chicken Joy meal here at the Jollibee fast food near his house.
A daily routine already, he checked his Facebook account and Yahoo mailbox, spending an hour or so, before going to sleep. When he opened his mailbox, it was only at that time the mystery was answered. The email he was now reading was telling him that a portion of the money he won was deposited to his account. There were some requirements more that he needed to complete before he would get the complete prize money, among which was for him to open a dollar account at his bank where the money would be deposited. Also, the email continued to state that he would have to sign some papers to be given to him by the sender’s representative who would also be coming over to Manila in a few days. This was a company policy and as proof that the winner had truly received the prize money. For a minute, he was gripped by fear. There could be a syndicate behind this. Or, at the very least, something not legal that could spell trouble for him. It was almost past one in the morning when sleep hit him. The next day, he went about in his dental clinic as he normally did, attending to a patient. After lunch, he proceeded to bank and opened a dollar account. He was bubbling with high spirits. From there, he went to SM Megamall to watch a Leonardo Di Caprio starrer, Inception. It was evening when he got back to his apartment in Mandaluyong city. He promptly logged on to his Yahoo email and typed a message. In it, he provided his dollar account number. Seconds later, the email was being read in the grubby internet café at Festac Town. As if on cue, the man reading the email pulled out his Nokia Communicator phone from his breast pocket. Thousands of miles away, a Blackberry lying atop the small table near the bed began to ring. The man on the bed slowly turned and reached for the Blackberry. As he talked on his cellphone, the naked lady beside him got to her feet and went to the toilet. They were inside a cottage that stood almost twenty meters away from Boracay’s powdery sanded-beach. “Who was that, Malik?” were the words thrown to him by the lady, who was now starting to dress. “Business call, really important. Sorry about that.” Malik’s English resonated with Nigerian Pidgin English, which was prevalently used in Nigeria. Malik was now handing to the lady five one-thousand bills. Malik’s brain worked furiously. He now should meet this Joseph Santiago. It was time. He only had a week or two of stay here in the country. He still had to travel back to Hong Kong, then proceed to Thailand, to Moscow, to London, then back to Lagos. He had a busy schedule. Their cyber-scamming business was thriving.
THE PENINSULA MANILA, an upscale hotel located at the corner of Ayala Avenue and Makati Avenue, is the place where most business executives meet and do business. Most of the times, though, one sees a couple of local stars having dinner at the hotel’s coffee shop. Politicians, however, provide rivalry to these stars: they themselves get huge attention. On this particular evening, though he found himself feeling awkward in his brand new barong tagalog, a formal attire he was not comfortable to wear, he was enjoying the cup of cappuccino and the soothing piano music at the coffee shop. He was to meet Malik Ugabe, the representative of the British lottery firm, the firm with whom he had been corresponding via email for more than a week now. He had already gotten around two thousand dollars, a part of his prize winning. He was still to receive the sixteen thousand dollars or so, the balance of the prize. As he had been told, he needed to do some paperwork and some minor task. He had been eyeing the shapely legs of the comely, mestiza-looking lady concierge standing near the hotel reception counter. He had arrived an hour earlier and as he now checked his watch, he could feel his limbs becoming fidgety. In half an hour’s time, he would be getting the sum close to a million pesos. Boy! The money came right at the time he needed it. He had already received the immigrant visa issued by the Canadian Embassy. He would use the amount as pocket money, or “show money”, which was required for him to finally get into Canada and live a new life there.
“Mr. Joseph Santiago?” The voice was baritone.
Joseph looked up from where he was sitting. He immediately stood up, pulled out his eyeglasses from his pocket and reached out to grab the extended hand. “Yes, I am. You are Mr. Malik Ugabe?”
[As of this writing, the lawyer of Joseph has just filed a case in court for "mandatory injunction" against the police, seeking the release of the ten thousand dollars they have in their custody.]
*Magha is scammer slang from a Yoruba word meaning fool. Nigerian scammers use this term to refer to gullible white people.
[Read the entire story in the forthcoming book TREE AND OTHER STORIES by AMADOR F. BRIOSO, JR., to be available in June, 2011, in selected bookstores in Manila. Another book, LOVE AND DESTINY, a novella written by the same author, will also be available in June, 2011. The author's previous book, "YOU FILIBINI?" Stories And Other Writings, is currently available at all Powerbooks bookstore outlets in Metro Manila.]