A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

Six scams that target aid workers and humanitarian organizations

scammed


1. Fake humanitarian conferences, events, and training opportunities


The script: You receive an e-mail announcing a conference, event or training opportunity related to some field of humanitarian endeavour in which your organization works. The email makes it clear that the sponsors will cover event cost, visa processing and handling, and travel arrangements. Your NGO only has to nominate two staff meeting certain criteria and the event organizers will arrange the rest.

Eventually your will be informed that, for example, hotel costs in Nairobi are not covered and you need to forward funds in advance before the participation of your staff can be confirmed.

This is a variation of the time tested advance fee fraud. Once you send funds the scammers disappear and you discover the event does not exist.

For example event scam emails see The Conference Con website.

Why it works: Conferences, and training opportunities, especially those that involve foreign travel are often seen by humanitarian organizations as a way to reward and develop hard working staff, especially junior or national staff who might otherwise not get such a chance. The promise that the vast majority of the event costs are going to be covered by the event organizers has great appeal to cash strapped NGOs.

How to avoid the con: Scammers have misused TakingItGlobal's name and reputation to carry out event scams so they have released this guide to spotting fake humanitarian event invitations.


text from a hitman scam email
2. The 'Taliban Hitman' scam

The script: The potential victim receives an email or series of text messages informing them of the following:

I was hired to kill you by the Taliban/AQ/a secret government organization. I have all the information on your daily activities that I need to kill you at any time. However, I recently became aware of your humanitarian activities and know that you are a good person at heart. If you send me 10,000 USD I will spare your life.

I have all the information needed to implicate my employer in the plot to assassinate you recorded on tape. If you me 1500.00 USD I will send you the tape. If you find the information on the tape useful you can send me the remaining 8,500.00. You can use the information on the tape to retaliate against my employer or you can go to the police with it.

Please be aware that my boys are watching you all the time. If you do not respond quickly I will be forced to carry out the contract despite my reservations.

Ahmad Killer


Why it works: Groups like the Taliban, Al-Shabaab, and Al-Qaeda have made it clear that they do not approve of many NGO activities. Often the victims have already received real threats warning them not to work for international NGOs. To a national staff member of an NGO in Afghanistan, Somalia, or Iraq it seems entirely plausible that one of these groups has hired someone to kill them.

How to avoid the con: Once you are aware of the existence of this scam the real nature of the messages become pretty obvious. The Taliban and their ilk don't need to hire a hitman to kill an aid worker. They have plenty of people willing and able to do the job for free and they are unlikely to have a change of heart.

Don't let fear overwhelm you. Don't respond to the threats and don't make counter threats. Keep the originals of all the threats and give them to your security officer so that the issue can be dealt with appropriately.

If you still suspect you are being targeted by a hitman take a look at the FBI’s 2007 post on the hitman scam.


3. The 'Intelligence Service' scam

The script: The victim is approached by a person or small group of people claiming to be undercover police officers or members of an intelligence service. The scammer tells the victim that he (the victim) is under suspicion but that for a small fee he is willing to look the other way.

Why it works: Fear... pure, simple, fear. Aid workers who belong to persecuted ethnic, religious or social groups are especially vulnerable.

How to avoid the con: Unfortunately this is a very difficult situation to deal with. Much depends on the local context. In some countries (*cough* Sri Lanka) where this scam is being run the perpetrators may actually be real police/inteligence agents. Is it better to throw them a few bucks and make your getaway? Or should you hold firm and refuse? I'll leave the choice to you. Hopefully, forewarned of this scam, you'll be able to make an intelligent choice.

Whatever choice you make you should report all such incidents to your security officer.


5. Emergency funds transfer scams

The script: The bank that holds an aid organization's funds receives a phone call and/or fax purporting to be from a program manager in the same aid organization. Usually this happens just before the bank closes for the weekend. The caller apologizes for not completely following the previously procedure for funds transfer but he explains that this is an emergency situation. Its seems that there are 250 families who have been stranded by the current emergency. They've been overlooked until now and they are in a desperate need . Unless the funds can somehow be transferred to a specified local NGO/CBO before the close of business the families will be forced to endure another weekend without food, water and shelter.

The local NGO is of course bogus and no one will know that anything is amiss until the following Monday at the earliest.

Why it works: Despite rumours to the contrary bankers are human. They don't relish the thought of their disaster stricken countrymen going without the essentials of life for another long miserable weekend. Usually the scammers have done enough research to help allay the bankers concerns. It is easy find basic information, such as the name and the contact details of the country director and finance officer on the internet. Account numbers can be found by going through the aid organizations garbage or conning a staff member to provide it.

How to avoid the con: Don't throw financial information in the garbage. Shred it. Even staff lists and contact information is useful to potential scammers. Make sure staff know and understand the risks of giving out information over the phone (see social engineering). Finally, make sure your bank understands exactly who can and cannot override previously agreed transfer and payment procedures.


6. The 'Build and Burn' scam

A badly damaged school in Afghanistan

The script: This scam is becoming more common in conflict plagued areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Essentially the scam works like this: a local contractor bids for a NGO funded contract to build a school or similar public building. Local militants allow the contractor to complete the contract but they take a cut of the contractors profits or divert building materials. Once the contract is complete the militants burn or blow up the school. Often an NGO, maybe even the same one, returns to rebuild the school and the scam starts over again.

Sometimes the contractor is an active participant in the scam at others times he is simply extorted.

Why it works: A poor security situation, remote management, and a certain amount of wilful blindness on the part of NGOs contribute to the success of this scam.

How to avoid the con: The only way I know of to avoid this scam is not to fund construction in contested areas. You'll need to balance the potential good of a new school (assuming it stays up) versus the bad of funding armed groups.

Burnout

In many non-governmental organizations, especially smaller ones, it is the security advisor’s responsibility to monitor staff for, and advise on the effects of, excessive stress. Even if it is not on your formal job description it is in your best interest to keep an eye on staff stress levels. Overly stressed staff frequently make poor decisions regarding their own security and are inclined to take short cuts when it comes to following established security procedures.

Excessive, prolonged stress can lead to an emotional and physical exhaustion commonly referred to as burnout. It often begins as normal stress but then you start to feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to humanitarian work in the first place. If left untreated burnout can eventually threaten your job, your relationships, and your health.

According to the Mayo Clinic you may be at greater risk of developing burnout if:

* You identify so strongly with work that you lack a reasonable balance between work and your personal life
* You try to be everything to everyone
* Your job is monotonous
* You feel you have little or no control over your work
* You work in a helping profession, such as health care, counseling, teaching, aid worker or law enforcement


The signs of burnout tend to be more mental than physical. They can include:

* Feeling detached
* Isolating yourself
* Irritability
* Frustration
* Feeling trapped
* Feeling like a failure
* Despair
* Cynicism
* Apathy
* Feeling powerless
* Feeling hopeless
* Emotional exhaustion

It is important to catch burnout quickly. Doing so can save a valued, experienced aid worker. Failure to do so can result in yet another bitter, cynical, possibly alcoholic, aid worker who is merely going through the motions.

One final note of caution: NGO security officers are as prone to burnout as other aid workers. You’ll need to monitor yourself for the signs and symptoms and take action because there is a very good chance that no one else will. Don’t try to work through it. It won’t work... and the only thing more dangerous than a bitter, cynical, alcoholic, aid worker is a bitter, cynical, alcoholic, security officer.

The WolfGroup

Raj Rana is back online with his new company’s website. The WolfGroup is a consulting group with expertise in civil-military relations, post-conflict peace building, critical incident management, NGO security, risk management, protection and advocacy. Recommended!

Safer Access gets it!

I can’t believe I never blogged about Safer Access before. Its not that I didn’t know they were there. Its just that somehow I didn’t give them the attention they deserve. That is until I noticed this paragraph on their website.

Safer Access supports the open-source philosophy, and seeks to apply it to humanitarian access issues involving safety and security. Safer Access training documents and best practice are not regarded as proprietary material, and are intended to be shared widely and discussed within the humanitarian community as an open source resource. This philosophy, when applied to vital information and training, reflects our desire to ensure that our support reaches all of those that are in need.

Imagine that. No exclusive copyrights. No caveats. No weasel words. No “if you use our security manual we’ll sic our lawyers on you”. Just open source safety and security information provided for the benefit of the humanitarian community.

Be sure to check out their open source security documents and assessments. There are documents covering topics from personal trauma kits to laptop security as well as security assessments for a number of countries.

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This work by Kevin Toomer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.
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