Gullible net users in fake sellers’ web

London, November 22:

Two things have happened in the world of the wonder web. First, it emerged that Nigeria’s third-largest source of hard currency, after oil and cocoa, is revenue from internet scams. Nobody believes it, not unless its oil reserves are paltry, or it’s selling its cocoa dirt cheap.

Never mind, let’s call it the truth. In Wales a man got into hot water for selling things on eBay. They didn’t exist, see — not the ‘debenture’ seat for the Welsh rugby team, nor the rugger paraphernalia flogged with it. Phillip Shortman, the fake rugby seller, has yet to be sentenced, though it has been made clear to him that he’ll probably end up in prison. The Nigerians have yet to be caught, owing to the fact that, as well as all having $48 million to chuck about, they’re also coincidentally all called ‘Prince Mr Excellent, Son of His Excellent Excellency’, and even the most tenacious terrier of probity would have some trouble hunting them down.

Now, two thoughts. First, before the advent of the internet, urban lore surrounding the sale of things that didn’t exist — or didn’t belong to the vendor — maintained that, as an activity, it was extremely cool. For as long as I can remember there’s been a rumour going round that some dumb Texan once bought London’s Tower Bridge from a chancer he met on the street.

I’ve also heard that a man from Ohio bought the whole of the UK university town of Cambridge, England. I think there must have been some confusion revolving around the word bridge. This has its roots in truth: the stones of John Rennie’s London Bridge, replaced in 1972 with today’s structure, were sold to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, though there the truth content ends, since these stones were indeed shipped to Arizona, and turned into a fully functioning bridge, called something like Havasu or Lake.

Imagining, though, that Tower Bridge had been mendaciously sold, the message of the story was ‘buyer beware’ or, more coarsely, ‘check out those dumb Americans’. Second, it must, surely, be obvious that those Prince So’n’Sos, with their millions of dollars that they somehow can’t access until they know your bank-account number, are hoaxes. In their earliest days, I worried for a fraction of a second whether my instant discard was a racist response. I searched my conscience, and it was clear — it wasn’t the mention of locale that put me off; it was the absurdity of the figures. Again, buyer beware — or rather, hopelessly gullible person beware! The internet has introduced us to some new, or rather very old, values: sellers should behave with honour. Exploiting a warped perception of need is one thing, but exploiting trust is another. It’s understandable, since the world of electronics is so unfathomable that we have to suspend disbelief just to log on.