Philippe Van Linthout is an investigating magistrate with the local prosecutor’s office in Mechelen, and a specialist in cybercrime.
He is also the victim of an online scam, albeit one on a very small scale, and told his story on VRT Radio 2 to stress that “it could never happen to me” is not a solid defence against falling for the cybercriminals.
The trap was laid in an advertisement on Instagram, just one of the many visitors to the site encounter when browsing the photos of the breakfasts of friends, celebrities and ‘influencers’.
“You usually see immediately when an offer is too good to be true, and is a fraud,” he said.
But one day in November something caught his attention: “I was looking for a Christmas present for my parents, and a set to make plaster casts of hands, a souvenir for later, seemed like a good idea. It was also a reasonable price: 25 euros.”
Two months later the package was delivered.
“I didn’t know what it was at first, it was so small,” he said. “There was a bag of cement in it that I could only use to cast my little finger, I guess. So I feel a bit ripped off.”
In the world of cybercrime, €25 is a small price to pay to press home the point that nobody is immune to being ripped off, and cybercrooks will not bother to check your CV before making off with your cash.
Van Linthout, meanwhile, has learned his lesson.
“These days I only buy locally or from a company I know, and I no longer accept offers that are too good to be true.”
Unusually for an officer of the court, he has no plans to file a formal complaint, and in doing so highlights the reason why this sort of scam is almost assured of success.
“You won’t find an address to complain to, or the company is somewhere abroad. The complaint is also in a grey zone, because I did get something,” he said.
As economists keep on trying to teach us: the price of something is whatever people are willing to pay.
“Those companies also assume that no one will file a complaint, I think. They sell something worth 10 cents for 25 euros. If they can do that to a few hundred people, they make good money. For the customers it is too small an amount to go to court. That is the power of the small numbers. You can also see this with phishing, when you receive an email for an invoice that has not yet been paid. Usually it only concerns small amounts, people want to have it dealt with quickly and they do not think about it.”
A final piece of advice?
“Things are not always as they seem. And always think twice before you buy.”