A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

Six scams that target aid workers and humanitarian organizations


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.

Safe Charity

A quick search on Google Trends shows that people become more interested in charity and giving in the approach to the holiday season (but note the sharp decline in the second half of December).

The chart also shows much greater interest in giving in wake of a major crisis. Both the 2004 Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina precipitated numerous Google searches as people tried to figure out how to help.

Unfortunately the holiday season and crisis events also bring out the scammers. The unscrupulous can make it difficult for the well intentioned private donor to avoid being scammed and to ensure that maximum use is being made of their contribution.

Charity Navigator can take some of the risk out of giving. The site evaluates the financial health of over 5,300 charities using two broad indicators; organizational efficiency and organizational capacity. In short they seek to measure how effectively organizations will use your donations.

Charity Navigator also has a valuable tips and resources section that will help keep you from being scammed and ensure that your money is spent the way you expect it to be spent.

Stop Walking! Updated

Warning: Rant Ahead

On 20 October Gayle Williams was shot and killed in Kabul while walking to work. This morning a French aid worker was reportedly kidnapped while walking in Karta Parwan.

I know that many international aid workers want to avoid “white 4x4 syndrome’” and hate the feeling of isolation that security precautions can bring. I know it. I understand it. However it is time to recognize that it is no longer safe for obvious foreign nationals to walk on the streets of Kabul. Certainly one may be only marginally safer in a vehicle but marginally safer is better than nothing.

As an international aid worker it might help to remember that the work you do has greater benefit than does your visible presence on the street.

Update: It looks like the French aid worker may not have been walking when he was kidnapped. I still stand by my advice though - stay off the streets until things improve.

Personal Security Assessment Form

Phil at itinerant and indigent has an interesting personal security assessment form that some may find useful. It is intended for ex-pat staff but I don’t see why it could be used, with some slight modifications, for national staff.

However, I recommend it with a caveat. It is important that the user of the form and the compiler of the data recognize that there is a difference (sometimes a very large difference) between feeling (un)secure and being (un)secure. People tend to underestimate threats to which they have become familiar and overestimate new threats especially if those threats are vivid and easy to recall.

I especially like question 5:

Describe a few things that could happen over the next two months,  that would cause you to review your posting here. Try to be very specific as you describe a threshold that, once  crossed, would make you radically reassess  being here in Afghanistan 

Having people assess their risk cut off level proactively might just help counter some of the cognitive bias that skews risk perception.

You can find the form here. Just scroll down to the bottom of the post.

Crossing Borders with your Laptop

Recent media coverage of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to allow border agents to search travellers laptops without cause has inspired a lot of coverage in tech media circles. However, as an aid worker it is important to remember that the US border is not the only place where your laptop can be searched. Aid workers have reported having their laptops searched by authorities in Sudan, and Pakistan. Sri Lankan security forces frequently demand access to aid worker's laptops when they are entering LTTE controlled areas or travelling by to or from Jaffna. In one case they even seized the computer of the Executive Director of an NGO.

So how do you keep prying eyes from accessing your sensitive files while travelling? The EFF has some good advice for protecting your laptop from arbitrary searches. Bruce Schneier has his take as well. Finally you shouldn't overlook Front Line's "Digital Security and Privacy for Human Rights Defenders".

Sending GPS Coordinates from your Thuraya to Twitter

Aid Worker Daily has instructions for sending GPS co-ordinates from your Thuraya satellite phone to Twitter via an SMS message. This might come in handy if you get into trouble and need help like James Karl Buck.

WVI Employment Fraud Warning

World Vision International is warning that fraudulent recruiters are bilking applicants out of "training" and "recruitment" fees. If you have received any of these bogus offers please help out by forwarding them to emp_fraud@wvi.org.

In Case of Emergency - ICE

In Case of Emergency (ICE) is a program that encourages people to enter emergency contacts in their cell phone address book under the name "ICE". This enables first responders, (paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and of course NGO security officers) to quickly search an unresponsive victims phone for the ICE contact who can identify the victim, provide emergency medical information, and next of kin details.

Of course this is not a panacea. It comes with the usual caveat; you'll need to adapt the system to your local context and your organization's methodologies. For instance it might not be appropriate in Afghanistan where Taliban supporters have been known to search the phones of passers by for foreign names. However, with a little bit of adjustment you should be able to use this idea to help ensure the safety and security of your staff.

If you want additional videos like the one above W. David Stephenson has done a number of videos at least one of which I have used before. You can find out more at his website or at his YouTube channel. Don't be put off by the Homeland Security 2.0 label he uses. His short videos are intended help empower ordinary people during times of emergency or disaster.

Beware Barbara Moratek of the Ivete Foundation

According to Sunbelt, a security software company, there is a new email scam going around where small non-profit organizations are being targeted by a “Barbara Moratek” of the “Ivete Foundation“. Not only does the email seem to be a scam but Googling either name can take you to sites with fake codec Trojans and other potentially damaging sites. NGOs, especially smaller ones eager for donors, should also be aware of this potential threat.

Go to their site to read the whole post.

Free Media and NGO Security

Yesterday the Free Media Movement (FMM), Sri Lanka, sent me an e-mail announcing their new website. A quick review of the new site reminded me of how valuable FMM and similar sites can be to NGO security officers. The risks faced by independent journalists are similar to those faced by NGOs working in the same area. Official and factional attitudes towards free media often reflect attitudes towards NGOs, especially human rights organizations. Therefore actions against journalists can be indicative of impending risks for NGOs.

There is another reason as well. Sooner or later you and your organization are going to face a crisis. When you do there is a very good chance you are going to have to talk to the media. Independent media sites can help you find credible, non-partisan journalists who will be willing to listen objectively to your side of the story.

The FMM site also has a link to “On Assignment: A Guide to Reporting in Dangerous Situations”, a security guide for journalists working in conflict zones. Although it is intended for journalists much of the information is of value to NGOs as well. It is worth the download just for the resource links.

Security Tip: Increasing Your Visibility

After a recent series of lethal ambushes and Claymore mine attacks against civilian vehicles we were warned by local subject matter experts to increase our visibility. They pointed out something that is blindingly obvious in retrospect. People conducting an ambush or Claymore attack will generally be laying down so they'll likely see something like this:

NGO Vehicle front - low visibility
NGO Vehicle - Low Visibility

Believe it or not there is a large flag mounted on this vehicle. Now imagine the vehicle is travelling down a dusty road just before dusk. What would you be able to see if you were laying near the road? Would you be able to distinguish this vehicle from a police vehicle, a 4x4 full of combatants, or one of the infamous "white vans" that plaque parts of Sri Lanka?

The Solution:

Taking the warning to heart one of the teams designed a short portable flag mount for attaching to the front bumper of NGO vehicles. They are also in the process of putting logos on the bumpers of their vehicles.

Flag Mount

Flag Mount Closeup
Flag Mount Close-up

Thanks to Cader and his team for passing this tip on.

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