Every time I venture into the netherworld of the internet, I try to keep in mind that important axiom: ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is’.
Yesterday, however, I managed to forget it. And although that blunder did not cost me thousands in stolen funds (oh, that my bank account was so healthy!), I lost two or three hours of time, which has its own financial cost.
Looking back, I can hardly believe the lengths to which the scammers went to snare me. It all started with an advertisement on Upwork, the site for freelancers. It promised regular editing work and went into great detail about the requirements and demands of the job. For once, I felt I was a perfect fit, and the remuneration was healthy, so I applied.
A couple of days later, I received a message saying I had been shortlisted and would need to take part in a Skype interview. On an A4 sheet that included the logo of a leading publisher, I was sent details of how to set up the call.
I carried out some quick research into the publisher – corporate information such as its structure and its leading figures, plus its specialisms – before connecting with the company for the text interview.
An individual introduced himself by name and position, which I was able to surreptitiously check as we ‘spoke’. I managed to find an individual with the same name and job at the publisher.
He told me that, if I was accepted for the job, I would have to take part in a short training session in HR-related requirements. We discussed job status (employed as staff or as a contractor) and pay terms, and then the specific demands of the work itself.
It all seemed genuine. I was then told I would have to answer 20 questions, which turned out to be typical interview questions such as ‘why do you think you are a good fit for the job?’, ‘would you consider yourself a team player?’ …
The very last question was about my bank. At this stage, he simply wanted to know which company I used, but I am now convinced it was the first stage of an attempt to cajole me into providing all my banking information.
During the final few minutes, I tried to find out more from him about the job but was told this would follow later. I had already begun to have doubts, but the banking query plus this reluctance to discuss the job itself set the alarm bells ringing.
‘We’ll assess your responses to our questions; come back in 30 minutes,’ he told me. I used the time for more research and discovered a forum thread from another ‘victim’ of the same individual. This included a response from an expert who described the specific nature of the scam.
Then, when I tried to call up the original advertisement, it had been withdrawn by Upwork, and when I returned to the Skype call, my interviewer’s account had been deleted. Presumably, he had been rumbled.
Of course, the saga did not end there. I had downloaded a file from him and had clicked a link within the file to launch the Skype call. I had no idea if this had introduced a virus to my computer, so I had to carry out a full scan.
I then wondered if there might be a way for my interviewer to access private information on Upwork that could give them access to my bank account. So, I spent an hour on the phone to my bank (50 minutes of that time trying to get through to them in the first place) to ask them to keep a lookout for unusual activity.
I also had to contact Upwork about the incident, which is not as straightforward as it should be.
It was a complete waste of my time, but I was kicking myself that I failed to spot the scam early on. The daily word count for the proposed work was surprisingly low; the pay rate was unusually healthy for Upwork jobs; the way in which my interviewer ‘spoke’ was slightly unusual, especially for someone who worked with words for a living; and the logo they used was cropped slightly in the corners – having worked in corporate communications, I know how fiercely companies protect the integrity of their brand. I should have spotted the signs.
Anyway, two days later, my bank account is still intact and Upwork have returned the ‘connect points’ I spent to apply for the job. But it’s a lesson learnt.
From Brexit bedlam to Hong Kong chaos, global crises made 2019 an exhausting year. But away from the plethora of headline-grabbing events, one man’s long and lonely campaign came to a quiet end. It was a painful moment for those people who treasure the English language.
John Richards, a 96-year-old former journalist, had devoted a large part of his life fighting to save … the apostrophe. But in 2019 he finally had to concede defeat. ‘We have done our best, but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won,’ he told the BBC.
How could it have come to this? Mr Richards had a succinct and devastating response, ‘It seems that fewer organisations and individuals care about the correct use.’
There is plenty of evidence to support his claim, even from businesses that could be considered guardians of the language.
Only this week, I was scrolling through a newspaper's mobile phone app when I spotted a story about UK universities. Read the home page standfirst (below). It certainly left me scratching my head. ‘That’s a huge burden for one poor student to suffer for the shortcomings of a generation,’ I thought.
But wait! When I clicked on the headline to open the full version of the story on a different page, the apostrophe seemed to have a life of its own. It had moved places, changing the meaning of the text in the process. Either that, or the number of students had suddenly multiplied. This is what it said:
It appears that even professional journalists have a problem with the apostrophe. But why is it so difficult to understand how to use it?
The apostrophe has three (in my view, straightforward) jobs:
An apostrophe is added to the subject that is carrying out the possession. For example:
The apostrophe is used in place of missing letters when words are combined:
An apostrophe is used to make plurals of lower case letters easier to understand. For example:
However, an apostrophe is not used for plurals of upper case letters because there is no ambiguity:
It's simple, really, isn’t it?! In the example of the newspaper article above, the journalist wanted to refer to the money worries of many students. So the correct use of the apostrophe would have been the students’ money worries, because it indicates plural possession.
So, please think of poor old John Richards, because his battle should have been an easy one to win. By the way, did I tell you about his comma campaign?
• The Plain English Campaign has put together an easy-to-follow guide to the apostrophe, which includes additional words of advice.