*** ----> Cheated by own kind, stranded by own kind: A story nobody wants to tell | THE DAILY TRIBUNE | KINGDOM OF BAHRAIN

Cheated by own kind, stranded by own kind: A story nobody wants to tell

TDT | Manama                                                      

The Daily Tribune – www.newsofbahrain.com

Report by Mahir Haneef

Stories of expatriates coming together to the aid of fellow expatriates down on luck are aplenty in the Kingdom of Bahrain but there are stories that often go untold – the stories of those cheated by their own kind and stranded by their own kind.

One of such stories is that of Jacob Varghese (name changed on the request of the victim), a young man from the Indian state of Kerala, who was cheated by another man from Kerala while in Bahrain and then shunned by the largest Facebook group of people from Kerala in Bahrain, even though the cheating originated from one of the WhatsApp groups run by the group.

Jacob wanted to be with his wife in Kerala when she delivers their first child in two months. Working as an electrical technician in Bahrain, he didn’t have much money to spare.

He made a post in one of the WhatsApp groups run by the Facebook group seeking help from travel agents to find a low-cost air ticket to Kerala.

Shortly thereafter, he received a WhatsApp message from a man who said he is a travel agent based in Manama and found his query on the WhatsApp group.

He promised a two-way ticket for BD98 and suggested booking soon to get the ticket at that rate.

Money was transferred by Jacob to the IBAN number BH66NBOB00000220071306 provided by the ‘travel agent’.

Once the money was received, the ‘travel agent’ began to avoid Jacob’s calls and did not provide a ticket as promised. Jacob raised the issue in the WhatsApp group.

While some members supported him and some others reported being duped in a similar manner, the administrator of the group took the stance that the cheating occurred outside of the group and there is nothing that can be done.

Jacob countered by saying that it is from the group that his mobile number was obtained by the scammer but the administrator said the group cannot be held responsible and that it is a group that has proved useful to a countless number of expatriates.

Cheated by own kind and shunned by own kind, Jacob has now approached the police to trace out the ‘travel agent’. Sharing his plight with the media, Jacob says he wants others to be aware of such a scam so that they won’t become victims like him.

Expatriates cheating own kind

Juan M Pedroza is an Assistant Professor of Demography, Migration and Inequality at the University of California, Santa Cruz and had been studying scams faced by expatriates and how expatriates cash in on the vulnerability of other expatriates and their fear of law.

Expatriates are often targeted when they are seeking information, often about adjusting their legal status or seeking any benefits, notes Juan. “Scammers seem to target people who may not have other sources of reliable information or who may not be familiar with the laws, language, or customs of their adopted country,” Juan said.

However, such scams often do not get properly categorized as scams perpetrated by one expatriate on another as the background of those involved are not often disclosed, he said.

Privacy in WhatsApp groups The scam faced by Jacob also brings to light the need for a system to ensure the privacy of members who are part of WhatsApp groups.

While Jacob asked a query in the WhatsApp group, the phone number from which the scammer contacted him was not listed as a member of the group.

This means either the scammer used another phone number to track the WhatsApp group chats or somebody else leaked that information to the scammer.

With WhatsApp allowing members to be added by clicking a public link, it becomes difficult to even track who is accessing the phone numbers of group members.

What’s the way out?

Jennifer Vessels, who is based in Norway is the CEO of Silicon Valley-based global consulting firm Next Step.

She has been helping large companies in their technological transformation, now by leveraging AI, and her client list comprises hundreds of companies, including Adobe, Cisco, Autodesk, Google, and Nvidia. She was also a keynote speaker at the 10th edition of Bahrain International eGovernment Forum last year.

While empathizing with Jacob, Jennifer highlighted the human naivety in using free online services such as WhatsApp.

She said it is not possible to have a system where phone numbers of the WhatsApp group are not visible or accessible to everyone in the group.

“Based on the architecture of WhatsApp and the business model of the parent company (Meta), this is not feasible.

There are however other ways that people can communicate through private groups via Slack, LinkedIn or even Facebook Groups (subject to spam but not based on phone numbers so can be more easily managed),” she said.

She recommends caution in choosing the WhatsApp groups to join and avoid communicating anything personal, including travel plans or areas in which one is seeking assistance, to the full group.

‘Privacy appetite’

Ameen Altajer is the CEO of INFINITEWARE, an artificial intelligence company based in Bahrain that deals with large clients, including the Government of Bahrain and Saudi Aramco.

According to him, whether there should be a control on phone numbers of WhatsApp group members getting exposed and how much control should be there boils down to the privacy appetite of the user. “I mean, it all boils down to the privacy appetite of the user.

Some people have no problem with that. Some people have a lot of problems with their number being shared. I stand on the fence.

It depends on the user and how they feel about it. However, there’s a segment of users, such as the elderly, who might need a little bit of guidance on how to do this.

So, I wouldn’t say a system, but more of awareness, because at the end of the day, it’s a matter of choice,” Ameen said.

‘Dark sale’ of personal info

Databases containing personal information such as phone numbers of members of public groups are often sold through the dark web.

Discretion in joining free groups and in communicating with members of public groups is the only way, says Jennifer. “Considering that WhatsApp and Facebook are ‘free’ funded through an advertisement-based business model, it is unlikely for Meta to invest in strict security, regulations or tracking the sale of information by or to its advertising customers.

Therefore, to avoid receiving spam, it is best to minimize use of ‘free groups’ while also setting strong spam filters on your phone.

As we rely more on technology in all aspects of our daily lives, we must be increasingly careful and discerning of what we post, communicate to whom,” she stated.

Regulation is key

A clear regulation that addresses the misuse of personal information is required and it should be implemented properly, says Ameen.

“Honestly, regulation is your best bet. Let’s say a company in Bahrain abuses this, their regulator or the government should have clear controls on how to mitigate against this and how to penalize the company that does this.

There’s a lot of that happening, so there should be very clear regulations that should not be very forgiving, so people can actually understand how big this is for people’s privacy,” the AI expert stated while calling for a proper regulation along with creating awareness among end users.

How can AI help?

Putting AI to work can help a lot in warning users about scams and phishing, says Ameen.

“Al can help out a lot by telling you, for example, that this thing is fishy or you want to get away from this gentleman or this lady because it seems that they want to scam you.

So what l’m trying to say here, a little bit of guidance powered by Al is getting pretty interesting,” he stated.

The AI expert further said different tools and products based on AI can help in warning users, especially those belonging to vulnerable categories, about scams.

AI may be a useful tool in predicting common scams and phishing online but a system to prevent cheating by those whom you trust, be it your own kind or not, is yet to come.