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What Can Jack the Ripper Teach Us About Protecting Us from Scams?

We all know we should be wary of online scams. But until you’ve been a victim, it’s easy to shrug your shoulders and expect it to happen to everyone else.

Covid has been a real driver in this increase of scams, pushing more and more sales online. In 2022, global ecommerce sales have reached $5.5 billion, and this is set to increase further to $7.3 billion by 2025. Of course, with a greater number of transactions, comes a greater number of opportunities for criminal activity. These take the form of identity theft, phishing scams, credit card fraud, auction fraud, investment fraud, even online dating scams.

The story of Jack the Ripper can teach us a lot about the confusing and confounding nature of scamming. The publication of the ‘Dear Boss’ letter and the ‘From Hell’ letter (which came packaged with part of a human kidney) highlighted the immense task the police had in trying to separate fact from fiction. These were part of hundreds of letters that were sent to the police and local press, claiming to be written by the killer.

Back in the late 1880s, there wasn’t the technology available today to ascertain whether these letters were fake or not. The police had to take them seriously – at least initially. And there is a school of thought that a proportion of them were genuine. Another is that the letters were penned by members of public and reporters wanting to keep the story alive and thereby sell more papers. Whatever the truth of the letters, they have gone down in history as one of the most notorious cases of identity theft and fraud that could have contributed to helping the killer avoid justice for his heinous crimes.

Traveling back even further we can stumble upon the first ever recorded incident of financial fraud. In 193 AD the then emperor of the Roman Empire, Pertinax, was assassinated by the very bodyguards who should have kept him safe – the Praetorian Guard. This elite group of soldiers then offered the throne of the Roman Empire to the highest bidder, which attracted the attention of a wealthy businessman – Julianus. His bid amounted to the equivalent of £1 billion today, which was readily accepted by the Praetorian Guard. Of course, what Julianus did not realize was that the Guard did not actually have any rights to sell the throne. Once the cash was safely stowed away, Julianus was disposed of, and a period of civil unrest and war began.

As we fast forward into the 21st century, the words ‘Ponzi scheme’ strikes fear into the hearts of many a financier. In 1920, US born Charles Ponzi discovered that he could purchase postage vouchers in the UK and make a small profit by reselling them overseas. He wasn’t quite so modest with his investors though, increasing that modest 5 per cent profit margin to a massive 50 per cent return. There grew a queue of investors wanting to benefit, and those early investors were paid back with money from other investor money further down the line. Of course, as that line of investors got thinner and sparser, the scam was revealed. Ponzi fled the country with $10 million.

With online scams, the opportunities to be targeted are on a global scale, and even more frightening is that it is all completely anonymous. Ponzi had to use the force of his personality and connections to encourage his investors onboard. Today’s internet fraud can be committed by one technically proficient introvert hiding behind a computer screen in their childhood bedroom.

Take notice of the advice your bank gives you in protecting yourself online. And never, ever, give money to anyone without double and triple, even quadruple checking the validity of their requests.

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