An elaborate hoax that duped the U.S. city of Newark, New Jersey, into signing a sister-city agreement with a nonexistent island nation is but one example of a profusion of scams and frauds in the internet age, with hucksters constantly inventing new ways to dupe, trick and swindle.
In a case that drew headlines and made Newark a laughingstock in some people’s eyes, the city signed a cultural partnership, known as a sister-city agreement, with a fake country called the United States of Kailasa, named after a mountain in the Himalayas. There was even a signing ceremony featuring Newark’s mayor and a supposed representative of Kailasa.
Newark officials were led to believe that Kailasa was a Hindu island-nation off the coast of Ecuador. According to Kailasa’s website, “It is a nation without borders created by dispossessed Hindus from around the world who lost the right to practice Hinduism authentically in their own countries.” Although Kailasa does not have a formal government, it is supposedly led by a self-styled guru named Nithyananda, who calls himself “the divine holiness and supreme pontiff of Hinduism,” and claims he founded the new country in 2019.
He fled India in 2019 after being charged with rape and sexual assault, which he denies committing.
Admitting that Newark got conned, the city council rescinded the sister-city agreement just days after it was signed.
“Although this was a regrettable incident, the city of Newark remains committed to partnering with people from diverse cultures in order to enrich each other with connectivity, support and mutual respect,” the Newark City Hall said in a statement.
Newark may not have been the only U.S. city that got duped. According to Kailasa’s website, some 30 municipalities have signed cultural partnership agreements, a claim VOA could neither verify nor disprove.
Nithyananda has not made public appearances since 2019, although video of his sermons can be seen on social media. The self-proclaimed Hindu leader has an extensive website and Facebook page with a grandiose list of supposed accomplishments.
“He appears to be misrepresenting himself at the very least,” said V.S. Subrahmanian, a cybersecurity expert and computer science professor at Northwestern University near Chicago.
“It’s possible Nithyananda has delusions of grandeur and wants people to admire him,” he told VOA. “When a lot of people look up to somebody, that person can take advantage of them in various ways.”
Subrahmanian added, “Organizations that show photos and videos of events they participated in can create an alternative reality other people may believe is real.”
While Newark’s experience was embarrassing for the city but ultimately caused no serious harm, the same cannot be said of many other scams. The internet, including social media, is giving scammers virtually limitless avenues to commit fraud.
“We’re seeing increasing phishing on emails and attachments that take them to sites that download malware on a computer,” Subrahmanian said, “and that means your passwords may be taken, including the one to your bank account.” He added, “another big risk is that they will lock your computer and demand a ransom.”
“The internet and the tools that come associated with it makes it easy to create false information,” said Cliff Lampe, professor of information at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. For example, “Someone may be able to hack an account, or create a false account, and pretend to be one of your network friends.”
Lampe said he is particularly concerned about one increasingly common scam.
“People who think they are doing legitimate business over Facebook messages,” he said. “A real friend never contacts you for money over Facebook Messenger.”
“Another I’ve seen recently is that you will get a text message saying a particular account has been closed and you need to contact us. That’s just an interim move for a scam and they’re trying to get money from you.” Lampe said.
Both Lampe and Subrahmanian say educating people about protecting themselves is key.
“Don’t do business over Facebook Messenger and text message. And don’t send gift cards to people you don’t know who say they have a family emergency because that’s sure to be a scam,” said Lampe.
Subrahmanian said, “If you see something that sounds incredible, be cautious and verify that it’s true so you don’t get duped.”