Tariq al-Halaq works at a barbershop in the central Baghdad neighbourhood of Mansour and he likes to talk to customers about his plans to get rich. The 37-year-old wants to make money and then leave the country to live a quiet life elsewhere. “It will only take a little time,” al-Halaq says.
Ask him why and he says he has stumbled upon an ingenious new scheme to make money on Facebook.
These online scams have always been around, says one Baghdad local, but recently they have been becoming more professional, targeted and therefore more widespread.
On a post in a closed Facebook group, meant mainly for the sale of second-hand cars, al-Halaq read about a man called Ahmad al-Yasri. “Buy a parcel for IQD6 million or a bank note for IQD60,000,” al-Yasri writes on Facebook. A parcel is a bundle of American bank notes amounting to US$10,000 and a bank note refers to a US$100 note. But the amount that the man is selling the currency for does not equate to current exchange rates. Six million Iraqi dinars only add up to around US$5,000. And six thousand Iraqi dinars only equal around US$50.
There is even a video accompanying the post which shows a surfeit of bank notes. Al-Yasri says he is trapped in another country with all the cash and cannot move it, which is why he is trading it for half of its value.
To a European audience, it may seem obvious that this is a scam. But many Iraqis are apparently falling for it anyway.
Some of the potential buyers – people like al-Halaq – believe the money that is on offer is probably stolen, with the serial numbers noted by international criminal agencies. But they don’t care. They still hope it could be a get-rich-quick scheme for them. In Iraq, it would be easy to launder the money, spending it on a car or even taking it to unofficial currency exchange shops that line most Iraqi city streets. The lack of enforcement of regulations for small amounts of money like this mean the average person on the street could probably get away with this, undetected.
Other Iraqis familiar with the Facebook advertisements say the whole thing is a swindle. The fraudsters convince unwitting victims to transfer the money for the exchange but then never send the foreign cash. Some Iraqis have apparently even travelled to Jordan or Lebanon to try and pick up the cash in person but they too have returned with nothing for their troubles.
These online scams have always been around, says one Baghdad local, but recently they have been becoming more professional, targeted and therefore more widespread. Over the past two months, it’s become clear that this could be a major new criminal problem for Iraqi authorities. “A lot of Iraqis are naive about these things,” says the Baghdad man.
“Ignorance of the law is one reason that people become victims of these fraudsters,” says Khaled Aboud Badai, who heads the department tasked with fighting organised crime in Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior. “In some cases, from a strictly legal point of view, the victims may even be considered as having taken part in the crime. People need to be careful.”
The fraudsters are using Iraqi law against their victims. If those locals who are duped could be prosecuted, they are far less likely to try and seek legal redress.
The authorities are trying hard to track down those individuals who post such messages on Facebook, Badai told NIQASH.
“We keep tracking Facebook users back, until we reach the original source,” Badai says. “We have also hacked some of the pages to stop criminal behaviours.”