Beware Card Fraud - It Can Make a Fool of You

October 20th, 2015

Life often has a disconcerting habit of making a person feel a fool just as he is beginning to think that he is being smart. I was a victim of this cruel propensity of life quite recently, although thankfully in my case, the experience, far from leaving me scarred, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the narrative below reveals. About a fortnight ago, quite unexpectedly, I received an unsolicited phone call, purportedly from my credit card provider. I had compelling reasons to believe that it was a purported, as opposed to a genuine call from my card provider, for reasons that I am about to explain. I am a septuagenarian, – at an age at which an old man’s mind apparently acquires a child-like gullibility that makes him an easy prey for tricksters and fraudsters. Friends and relations, with my best interest at heart, are constantly warning me of some diabolical swindle or the other, that they have heard of, that is targeted especially at unwary senior citizens. One such swindle that has been brought to my attention concerns credit card fraud. The intended victim of this fraud receives an unsolicited phone call, supposedly from the fraud prevention department of his credit card provider. The caller informs him that some fraudulent transactions, involving his credit card, have been detected and advises him to phone immediately, the emergency number shown on his card. The devilish part of this fraud is that although the victim phones the correct helpdesk number, - as shown on his card, he in fact ends up speaking to the fraudsters. Extraordinary as this may seem, this remarkable feat is easily achieved, allegedly, by the simple expedient of the fraudster’s continuing to remain on the line at his end and thus intercepting any subsequent call that the victim may make from his phone, - including the call to the card provider’s helpdesk. Having thus intercepted the victim’s call and duped him into believing that he is speaking to his card provider’s helpdesk, the fraudsters then inveigle from him, the card number and the pin details and use the information to make fraudulent transactions, - which now are of course actual as opposed to the fictitious ones used initially as a pretext for calling the victim. All of this detail, in this frightening scenario, had been firmly implanted in my mind by well-wishers, with an admonition not to allow myself to be caught out as other slow witted pensioners had been hitherto.

Despite being thus forewarned, I was totally unprepared for the unsolicited phone call that I received one morning and heard the dread words that announced that the caller was from my card provider and that there had been a fraudulent transaction on my card. Although I recognised this to be the opening gambit of the diabolical fraud that I had been warned of, I could scarcely believe that I was actually being ensnared by it. Like many an optimist, I had imagined that the law of averages would somehow ensure that I would be amongst the numerous who on the balance of probabilities could expect to remain untouched by this unwelcome event.

It was therefore a disappointment, that my justifiable optimism had not been rewarded. The laws of probability had clearly not worked in my favour but it was no use pondering over the vagaries of probability theory. Undeterred, I rose to the occasion and with great presence of mind informed the would-be fraudster that I was “right in the middle of something” and would he therefore call later. Congratulating myself as I put the phone down on having skilfully warded off an attempted fraud, I allowed myself a moment of triumphalism: these fraudsters would have to get up very early indeed to catch me out! But my elation did not last long and soon gave way to alarm as events began rapidly to take on a sinister turn. Having cut short the warning call that I had just received, I was keenly aware that I needed quickly to contact my card provider, to ascertain whether or not the call had been authentic. But mindful of the warning that the telephone must not be used on such occasions, to avoid being intercepted by the fraudsters, I rushed to my mobile to contact my card provider, - only to discover that someone had already placed an ominous message there, asking me to phone my card provider. This was now becoming a worryingly fiendish episode. Not only were the fraudsters lying in wait for me on my landline but they had also sealed off my only other avenue of help, - my mobile. For a moment I seriously contemplated going straight to the police but it so happened that I had a previous engagement to attend, - the computer class for senior citizens where I tutor. Reluctantly I decided that for the moment I had no option but to defer contacting my card provider until later. As events were to prove, that was the most sensible decision on my part that morning. For as I went to my local supermarket after my computer class and tried to pay for my shopping with my credit card, I found that it was no longer valid. This was an embarrassing development but it occurred to me that it could scarcely have been engineered by the fraudsters. They would have wanted to use the card, albeit unauthorisedly, but would not have sought to block it from use. Rather perplexed, I went home to phone the card company. By now the house phone, some four hours after the initial call from the people whom I had assumed to be fraudsters, should have unblocked itself and be available for normal communication. My inquiry at the card provider’s helpdesk, after the usual security related questions, brought forth an immediate explanation of the morning’s events. “We tried to contact you contact this morning, Mr. Keskar” the girl at the helpdesk informed me, “we were expecting your call, did you get our text ?”. It then transpired that my card had indeed been used for fraudulent transactions in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, of all places. In consequence, the card had been cancelled. As is normal in such circumstances, my card provider did not hold me liable for these transactions and asked me simply to await the issue of a new card.

That the prospect of being a fraud victim had been averted, was indeed a great relief. But it was at the same time curiously disappointing, that what had appeared earlier in the morning to have all the appearance of becoming a drama, should have ended in such an anticlimactic fashion. There was really no fraud after all, - at least none associated with the phone call that I had received that morning. I had not acted with great presence of mind. Rather, I had been tilting at windmills. Fired by the tales of fraud that I had been subjected to, my wild imagination had conjured up villainy where none existed. In reality the fate of being the victim of a vicious phone scam had not befallen me, - nor had I been the plucky victim who had fought back. My ego, which had begun to inflate itself with the thought of having turned the tables on some despicable fraudsters, was rudely pricked. There was ultimately nothing to boast about in what I had done, and certainly no danger of resting on my laurels after a great triumph. There remained only the realisation that I had narrowly escaped making a fool of myself, - which I certainly would have done, had I gone to the police that morning as I had intended. 

A Visit to the Dentist

October 20th, 2015

Last week I visited my dentist for my periodic dental check-up and came away, much to my surprise, quite elated. Dental check-ups are not an activity that I can claim to be able to take in my stride and my attendances at dental check-ups tend not be nearly as frequent as they ought to be. Received wisdom about the frequency of dental check-ups has equivocated over the years, - sometimes declaring six-monthly check-ups to be essential for good dental care and other times conceding that check-ups might be undertaken at longer interval such as a year, for example, without serious detriment to one's long-term dental health. This division of opinion as to whether six monthly or yearly check-ups are the more beneficial has been a welcome gift to a phobic like me whose fear of dental check-ups is incurable. With blatant opportunism, I have seized on the apparent rift in expert opinion, to allow myself to conclude that my own check-ups could be made at an even more extended interval of fifteen months instead of twelve months. I haven't of course taken care to appraise my dentist of this unilateral decision of mine to institute fifteen monthly check-ups. Consequently, at regular intervals of about six months or so, his practice continues to send me polite communications reminding me of the imminence of my dental check-up and inviting me to attend at my earliest convenience. I steadfastly ignore the first several of these entreaties in pursuit of my own agenda of fifteen monthly check-ups, although I am aware that this practice might well lead even some close friends to shake their heads and conclude wearily that this is simply procrastination on my part, designed to disguise a phobia of dental treatment. I choose on the other hand to characterise it, perhaps rather grandly, as my iron determination to adhere unflinchingly to my aim of extending the intervals between dental check-ups. Unsurprisingly therefore, when the usual series of reminders arrived in the post just prior to my last check-up, I carefully ignored the first several, until deciding in due course that it was at last timely to make an actual appointment with the dentist. As usual, on the day of the appointment, I was assailed, almost from the moment that I woke up, by a feeling of foreboding, which precedes all my encounters with the dentist. On my way up to the surgery I even tried to invoke the power of prayer to ensure an easy passage through the ordeal that I imagined awaited me. But the efficacy of prayer seldom offers much hope to frayed nerves, and I arrived at the surgery in a state of despondency and somewhat disappointed that prayers had proved so futile in my particular case. Mercifully, I didn't have to wait long before the nurse came out to escort me into the dentist's presence. My dentist greeted me cheerfully as usual. He is the personification of charm and good  manners, and when it comes to examining teeth, he happens to have the gentlest touch that I have encountered amongst dentists - and I have been under the care of several over the years, including one who easily qualified as the "Butcher of Walthamstow". As I reclined in the dentist's chair and closed my eyes, as is my wont when undergoing dental examination, I could feel the dentist carefully probing my teeth and uttering the ritual intonations that dentists resort to during dental check-ups: upper right four, upper right five, upper right six missing, etc. They made little sense to me but I apprehended that they might possibly be a damning verdict on the state of my teeth. After what appeared an eternity, which in reality was no more than five minutes, the dentist stepped back and with a most pleasant smile announced that everything seemed to be alright, and that he didn't think we needed to anything to them, - meaning my teeth -, 'this time'. It took a moment or two before the import of his words sank in. If there were such an emotion as 'stunned happiness' then I had just experienced it and I was having some difficulty containing my joy. I should have remained calm and thanked the dentist politely but I did no such thing, and probably to my dentist's horror, disgraced myself by bestowing on him an undignified profusion of thanks, accompanied by several incoherent expressions of gratitude. The dental nurse, possibly mistaking my emotion for distress, came to my aid and escorted me out to the receptionist, to complete the formalities of form-filling and charge-payment. I left the surgery in a state that some dental surgeons might describe as 'post check-up' euphoria. Its effect was to cram my head with all kinds of joyful thoughts and as the euphoria subsided, the realisation gradually dawned on me that the most exhilarating moments in life were not necessarily engendered by extraordinary events such as one's rare achievements or even rarer strokes of good fortune but quite often by the ordinary and mundane things in life such as a visit to the dentist.

Tale of an Idiosyncracy

October 18th, 2015

One of my recreational activities, for some time now, has been that of jogging. Despite being a long-time jogger, I have to confess that jogging remains an activity that does not come easily to me. As a jogger my efforts are risible and my jogging is probably best described as "shambling". I cannot claim to be naturally athletic and somehow the fitness that most joggers acquire through regular exercise eludes me. To compensate for my natural lack of fitness, I have been compelled to resort to such desperate stratagems as running in as lightweight a running attire as possible and wearing the thinnest-soled trainers available in sports-shops. The latter of course has a drawback: lightweight, thin soled, trainers are not really considered to be best suited for running. The received wisdom about appropriate footwear for running has it that they should be specially moulded to provide support for the arches of the foot and have soles which are stout enough to absorb the shock that the human frame receives as each foot lands on a hard road surface. Such shoes however, could scarcely be my preferred choice since the thought of running in stout-soled shoes rekindles in me all the painful memories I have of gasping for breath whilst running in army boots in my younger days as a serving soldier. I always regarded it then as a form of torture inflicted on less fit soldiers like me by the Army's sadistic PT instructors. I therefore studiously ignored all good advice about the correct running shoes and remained steadfast in wearing the minimalist footwear that I fondly imagined to be performance-enhancing for non-athletes like me. I may well have persisted in pursing this course of idiosyncrasy had it not been for a chance event that normally need not have concerned me at all. The event itself was quite dreadful: a ram-raid on a sports-goods shop at Chingford Mount, - not very far from where I live in London. I happened to be walking past the shop and was quite saddened by the scene that I witnessed. The shattered shop-front and the ransacked interior of the shop were a grim testimony to what had occurred. I recognised the man standing in what remained of the shop-doorway as the owner of the shop. I had seen him before on my occasional visits to the shop with my late wife to get trainers for our grandchildren. The shop happens to be a family-run business and the courtesy and good manners of family members who serve in the shop had always made my shopping trips there a pleasant experience for me. Seeing the owner standing in front of his now devastated shop, I could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of sympathy, although what I did next was, I realise now to my embarrassment, something prompted more by an idle curiosity than my deeply felt sympathy: I asked the man what had happened, - a question that he had probably already been asked a dozen times that morning. To his great credit he retained his good manners, and even managed to raise a friendly smile as he informed me that the shop had been ram-raided in the night. Everything in his demeanour was a lesson in stoicism in the face of adversity which I found so touching that I felt it deserved some helpful gesture on my part in return, no matter how trivial. I decided therefore that this was the time to get the new trainers that I had been contemplating buying for some time but had hitherto procrastinated for various reasons. I walked into the shop and after trying out one or two pairs of trainers, selected a pair that was predictably of the thin-soled variety that I always preferred. This turned out, to my surprise, to be a pair of ladies' gym trainers, as the owner soon informed me when I took the pair to the till for payment. I am not sure if my disappointment and confusion were all too obvious, but the owner felt obliged to offer to help me with the selection of a suitable pair of men's trainers. He showed me a couple of pairs which he recommended as being good quality as well as reasonably cheap. To my alarm both had the thick soles that I had always imagined to be inimical to my puny efforts at jogging. Not wishing to offend the shop owner, I rather hesitantly mentioned my absurd paranoia that thick soled trainers were akin to heavy army boots and would therefore prove my nemesis when engaged in jogging. If the good shop owner were perplexed by this bizarre assertion of mine, he did a remarkable job of keeping a straight face and maintaining his professional manner. With commendable forbearance he explained that there was no question of these shoes being heavy. They were ergonomically designed to be both light on the foot and provide maximum support for the foot's arches. Normally, I should have dismissed this explanation as typical sales talk but there was something disarming about this shop owner's obvious honesty which persuaded me that perhaps what I was being told was simply a frank comment on the merits of the trainers that deserved to be heeded. It was time, I felt, that I rose above my phobia and committed myself to using the kind of running shoe that was regarded by most sensible people as being the most appropriate one. Assailed as I was with lingering doubts, I willed myself to putting aside my reservations and agreed to the purchase of the trainers that the owner had recommended to me. I need not have tortured myself as to whether I had made the right decision. My trust in the shop owner's advice was fully vindicated. The shoes, as it happened, turned out to be the most comfortable as well as the most lightweight shoes that I had run in to-date.

This happy outcome nevertheless gave me some food for thought. Rational beings like to believe that their actions are the result of rational thought. That I should have eschewed the use of what might be regarded as the ideal footwear for jogging for so long, appeared to me on reflection not so much a harmless idiosyncrasy as an illustration of irrational fears harboured by otherwise rational minds, - if such a generalisation might be permitted from my own particular example. Even more irksome to me was the realisation that my irrational fears were not dispelled by any application of rational thought on my part but rather by a chance random event, i.e. a ram-raid on a shoe shop. This realisation was itself quite unsettling in that it seemed to confront me with what I believed to be a different kind of irrationality, - that of the phenomenon known as chaos in which chance random events result in equally random unforeseen consequences. I am not sure however, whether my unease about my brush with chaos was well-founded. The very unpredictability of chaos has now become, I believe, the subject of a rigorous mathematical theory. One of its better known propositions concerns the so-called Butterfly Effect, which holds that a random event such as a butterfly fluttering somewhere on the edge of the world can be the determinant of a full-blown hurricane, thousands of miles away in mid-ocean. The romantic in me likes to believe that researchers into the Butterfly Effect will perhaps be able to construct a neat mathematical formula to explain how a random ram-raid on a shoe shop somewhere in Chingford, came to be the determinant of my burst of rational thought, which dispelled my phobia of thick soled trainers. The realist in me, on the other hand, tells me that such a formulation would be unlikely. I do harbour the hope however, that I might have provided mathematicians with some interesting empirical evidence, - that of my experiences with my trainers, with which to validate, or otherwise, their Chaos Theory. Perhaps my episode with the trainers had served some higher purpose after all.

Anno Domini or simply a year in the Common Era ?

October 18th, 2015

The Daily Mail in one of its strident editorials, recently launched a vigorous attack on the BBC for its declared intention of using the terms "BCE" and "CE" rather than "BC" and "AD" when referring to a year within a given date, - "BC" and "AD" of course being the well familiar "Before Christ" and "Anno Domini", while "BCE" and "CE" are purportedly the more modern usage that stands for "Before Common Era" and "Common Era". The editorial for all its vitriol had a serious content that was thought provoking and struck a chord with me. I am a regular Daily Mail reader, - it is my daily paper of choice, although I am probably not a typical Daily Mail reader. I read the Mail for the quality of its journalism rather than its political stance, but of late I have been finding myself in sympathy with the Mail in at least one regard: its oft repeated contention that the BBC is prepared to disavow almost every custom or tradition of the British Isles, in order simply to be piously multicultural and "politically correct". I was therefore as exasperated as the Mail was indignant to learn that in future the BBC was to use the designations of BCE and CE instead of AD and BC. The BBC's explanation that it was simply conforming to modern usage did not carry with it the ring of conviction that it might have hoped. This is probably unsurprising given that the BBC's has in recent times introduced a number of practices which it may well characterise as being "modern" but which in fact are arguably motivated by "political correctness". One such "modern" practice that has now been introduced by the BBC, for example, is the use of the term "settled communities" when reporting on immigration issues. The BBC now prefers to use this bizarre Orwellian term to refer to the native English of the British Isles, rather than referring to them simply as "the English", lest the term "the English" should give offence to recent immigrants. Given this kind of BBC "modernity", I felt quite justified in being smugly confident that what I was witnessing was not at all a BBC about to embrace modernity, rather a BBC that was descending further into political correctness. I was however, soon to discover that I might have been over-hasty in decrying the BBC's actions in this instance, - for I have learned to my consternation that the terms CE and BCE, which I thought were indicative of the BBC's desire to disassociate itself from the Christian origins of the modern calendar, are in fact being used by no less a Christian body than the Jehovah's Witnesses. I am no stranger to Jehovah's Witnesses. A very charming lady regularly knocks on my door and engages me in a gentle discourse about the Bible, as well as inquiring about my well-being. She always ends these door-step conversations by pressing a copy of the Watchtower (a publication of the Jehovah's Witnesses organisation) in my hand and urging me to read some article therein together with some additional Bible reading that she recommends. Although I have little inclination to be a Jehovah's Witness, I quite look forward to my encounters with our Jehovah's Witness lady, not least because she is such a mild mannered gentle old soul. I also like reading the Watchtower as it contains not just the usual evangelical message but also articles about historical events and personalities referred to in the Bible, - such as for example, the kings of Persia and the Babylonian Empire. Interestingly, these articles always refer to dates as either CE or BCE. Seeing these articles referring to the Year of Our Lord as years of the Common Era, was to me an unexpected discovery and it just occurred to me that the BBC might have a point after all, and that CE and BCE might indeed be modern usage, and not as I had imagined an attempt on the part of the BBC to eschew practices that happen to be rooted in Christian tradition. It is always chastening to have to admit to one's misjudgements and I am obliged to do so this on this occasion since the BBC can clearly substantiate its case by reference, at the very least, to the Watchtower. But this episode is illustrative of how institutions, like individuals, are frequently judged on their reputation rather than their actions. The BBC has acquired a dubious reputation as an incorrigible recidivist when it comes to acts of political correctness. On this occasion the BBC's reputation would appear to have gone ahead of it and those like me who value the role of the BBC as a public service broadcaster might be forgiven for attributing to it motives that it did not in fact harbour.

Web Advertisements

October 11th, 2015

The facility that the HTTP protocol provides for extracting the IP address of a Web user's computer and its subsequent use by many Websites to determine the country or the geographical region in which the computer is located, has always seemed to me to be an unnecessary intrusion of my privacy. For Websites of course this information is quite useful as it facilitates the display of highly targeted advertisements that focus on products and services that might be of local interest. However, a slightly unnerving aspect of this type of IP-targeted advertising is sometimes witnessed by those of us who occasionally visit foreign-language websites. Here we find to our alarm that the website's advertisements suddenly change of their own volition from the local language to English, as if sensing somehow that we are actually native English speakers. Of course as IT experts know, the website has no such sensory perception, - only the ability to associate the visitor's IP address with the appropriate geographical location and thereby determine his native language. I am a student of German and frequently visit the website of the German newspaper "Bild", with the aim of improving my German, - although that might well be a forlorn hope. To my chagrin, the "Bild" website is also given to this propensity to recast all its advertisements from their normal German into English, the instant it recognises my UK-based IP address. I am now resigned to this, and try to console myself with the thought that as the products being advertised are usually of the kind that have an international market, such as Nokia mobiles or BMW cars, their advertising can not really be characterised as deliberate targeting of unsuspecting UK-based web-surfers, - even when facilitated by the unscrupulous use of surreptitiously obtained IP-address data. However, I was not so sanguine about one particular advertisement that recently appeared on the "Bild" website' The advertisement was in fact a recruiting poster for the Royal Air Force, exhorting its readers to enlist and promising them a rewarding career as an airman. I found this poster bizarre. I could not imagine something so definingly British as service with the RAF being allowed to be sponsored by a foreign website. No rational being in the Air Force, I would have thought, would ever have authorised such a course of action , - not least because of the obvious potential for cruel parody that such a poster had, with its use of a German website as a recruiting agency for one of Her Majesty's services. In my mind's eye I could well see a Monty Pythonesque sketch, with a Prussian recruiting sergeant barking at cowering English recruits. It occurred to me that such thoughtless form of advertising could only be encountered in the wholly computerised world of the Internet, where human wisdom takes a back seat and so-called intelligent software undertakes action and decisions which in the real world belong to humans. Reflecting on this extra-ordinary advertisement and chuckling to myself with amusement as well as disbelief, I could not help wallowing in a certain schadenfreude at the amazing faux-pas that this advertisement had managed to commit. For it told me that the so called artificial intelligence of modern computers, that we humans are constantly reminded of, is in reality only a step away from artificial stupidity, as this astonishing advertisement has clearly demonstrated.