Wednesday, February 5, 2014

That time of year again

That's right, I was the duty officer for the past 7 days and oh what an experience it is.

I don't know what duty officers handle in other countries (do they even get called?) but in Lagos it's pretty much all scams all the time. The calls have a tendency to be really depressing, since most individuals being scammed refuse to believe that the person they've been communicating with isn't who they claim to be.

As with last time I was duty officer, I just want to grab every American by the shoulders and say 'Be careful! Protect yourself! Get good advice and truly listen to it!'

Remember - there are two people in Nigeria whose job is to talk to you.

One is the scammer. He (or less likely she) has all day, every day to think of ways to get to you and to think of excuses whenever you catch him in a lie, to slowly build up a relationship with you, and to eventually brainstorm dire circumstances that require you to send him money. His livelihood and - maybe that of his family - depends on convincing you that it's real and getting you (and only you) to send him cash.

The other is the consular officer. I spend all day, every day working on the visa line and when I answer the phone for you after hours it's in my own time and I'm busy, tired or both. I have no agenda. I'm not asking for your money and I don't get any kind of pay raise for convincing victims that they've been scammed. If I convince you not to send money, my only reward is that I sleep better at night. (Except for the whole 'answering calls in the middle of the night' part.) If I don't convince you, it's you that loses money, not me; my punishment is being disappointed in myself and frustrated with the situation. So what's my angle? (Hint: I really don't have one. I just want to help you out and do my job well. Someday it could be my family member who is targeted by a scammer and I hope there will be a consular officer who steps up to protect them too.) And keep in mind - I do this for a living. I've talked to lots of scam victims. I know what I'm talking about. I have access to all the systems. If I say there's no such person then there's no such person. If I say that the hotel they are supposedly staying in doesn't exist I can't go there and check on them anyway.

This is not to say that real emergencies don't happen. We've had kidnappings in Nigeria, in fact quite a few. We've helped American citizens who were imprisoned or assaulted or robbed of their passports. But that just makes us better at determining what's real and what isn't. Believe me - I won't tell you that you're the victim of the scam until I'm very sure. I don't want to look silly and I certainly don't want to deny a real American citizen any of the services the consulate can provide.

So there it is, my manifesto. I care about you America and I don't want you to be tricked or robbed or have your heart broken. I may be a faceless bureaucrat, but I am your faceless bureaucrat.

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