When news about Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s personal data leak broke, I knew I could no longer trust the government to protect our personal information. If the country’s most prominent figure fell victim to a data leak, then what about commoners like me? I was resigned to my fate as an Indonesian, living in a country where personal documents like ID cards (even the electronic version) and household registrations must be photocopied for administrative purposes. Every time you create an account in e-commerce apps, you’re required to provide your identification number, as well as a photo of you holding your ID card, to verify your identity. The risk of my identity being misused, whether to borrow money or to scam people, is inevitable.
Although I have given up on the situation, I’m still frustrated with spam messages that keep filling my inbox. Every day, at least one unknown number texts me to offer a loan, or to notify me that I won an unbelievably large amount of money.
Our communication ministry said we could end these spam messages by registering our ID number and household registration documents to their department, but I and many others still receive such messages daily despite having done so.
One day, I was so fed up by all the unwanted messages that I decided to buy a new number. My plan was not to register the number anywhere, and only use it to contact people close to me. I was optimistic that my new number won’t be “tainted” by spam messages. I enjoyed some peace and quiet for about two weeks before getting my first spam message.
Curious as to how this happened, I asked digital security consultant Teguh Aprianto why spam messages were still filling my new number. He said that the number might not be that new.
“So far, in Indonesia, abandoned phone numbers are recycled and sold again. There’s a possibility that those new numbers have been used by others to do certain registrations,” Teguh told me.
“Another thing to consider is where you bought that number. If you purchased it from street vendors, then they probably wrote down every phone number that was sold. They sell the database, and collectors take that data from them.”
I did buy the number from a street vendor. I mean, I didn’t know where else to get it from.
Teguh doubts the government will take digital security issues seriously.
“People are confused about receiving strange messages. When we complain [to the government], we’re told to report it. So far, the government has not made any efforts [other than] waiting for reports,” he said.
When I asked what I could do to protect my phone number from spam messages, he advised me to buy a number from international providers that can be used in the country. He said most local providers can’t guarantee that our number will be safe from scammers.
It looked like I had no other choice but to make peace with spammers, just like how the president told us to “coexist” with COVID-19. So, I took the high road and decided to make friends with these anonymous texters. But will they reciprocate my feelings? I spent a week texting them back to find out.
Since my inbox was already filled with spam messages, I spent the whole day listing down the contact details of my potential new friends.
From the day I got the number in March until mid-September, I had received a total of 22 spam messages. Ten offered loans, 11 were prize scams, and one was a request to be a business partner from someone who claimed to be from Malaysia.
The messages were sent via SMS, but I couldn’t chat with those numbers. Almost all of them directed me to contact another number included in the text message. I reached out to all 22 of them and started the conversations with messages like, “Hi, is it true that you can lend me some money?” or “Hi, I’m the winner of X and I’d like to claim the prize.”
I left my phone on my table, and went to bed. I hope someone replies to the message, I thought. I really need a friend I can share my deepest feelings with.
The first thing I did when I woke up was check my phone. I was so excited to see their responses. Since a lot of messages were coming in, I focused on building chemistry with people who offered to lend money through online loans. Their responses were quite similar. They instructed me to send a message detailing my personal information. I had to attach a photo of my ID card, household registration, and passbook. They also asked me to fill out an application form. After that, they said they would lend me anywhere from 5 million to 500 million Indonesian rupiah ($350 to $35,000). Nice. That’s what friends are for, right? They’re ready to help you when you’re struggling financially.
I saved those numbers and checked out their WhatsApp profiles. I looked at their photos, trying to get to know them better. Of the 10 contact numbers, only one did not have a profile picture. One number had a photo of two smiling men, another also had a photo of two men but they were holding blurry certificates. The rest displayed the logo of the organization they supposedly worked for. One number is not registered on WhatsApp, and couldn’t be reached via SMS.
I ignored all requests to fill out a form. All I wanted was a shoulder to cry on, but they left my ramblings on “read.” All they cared about was money, I guess.
Despite knowing that most of them acted like I didn’t exist, I decided to still greet them every morning. I tried to engage them in a discussion about life. Maybe, just maybe, someone would have a change of heart and want to be friends with me. Five people read my message but ignored me, while four sent a message similar to those from the day before. One asked for my photo.
Seeing a chance to converse with them, I sent an unidentifiable image I got from the internet. I told them that my name was Widi and that I was from Klaten, a regency in Central Java (I apologize to everyone named Widi from Klaten). “Send me your video, show me your face,” they answered. Damn, I just wanted to talk about my love life, but they insisted I verify my identity, so I cut all ties.
Tired of talking to people who only cared about money and business, I turned to spammers who said that I won a prize. They claimed to be from trusted institutions, including a health care and social security agency that was supposedly distributing COVID-19 aid, an e-commerce platform, an oil and gas corporation, and a celebrity couple.
Both the health agency and celebrity couple didn’t provide an alternative contact number, so I decided to try those purportedly from an e-commerce site and gas corporation instead. But it was a long process to get their numbers.
Unlike other spam messages, their texts didn’t include a number to contact, but a link to a poorly designed website. The content in both pages were very similar. In a post, they insisted that whatever they said in the text was not a scam. They also congratulated me for having been chosen as a winner.
One thing that caught my attention was that the announcement specifically asked me not to tell anyone about the prize I’m supposedly about to receive. They said it could lead to jealousy.
I finally found their WhatsApp numbers at the bottom of the site. I sent them a message, feeling hopeful that my efforts would come to fruition. I received a reply, but they asked me for my name and the PIN code in the earlier message. I ignored these requests and started talking about life instead, but they left me on “read.”
Day 5, 6, 7
The last three days were uneventful. I spent them reaching out to the numbers I had contacted before. I also started texting back those who sent spam messages to another number I use for work.
Apart from the 22 contacts I gathered from my new number, I also responded to 52 other people using my work number, none of whom answered me. Those seven days went by without me making even one new friend. I can’t believe they were all so heartless.
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