The challenge of building trust amidst rampant fraud

Few scams are more detestable than those that involve fake drugs for major diseases, especially in poor countries. This week, the Mail and Guardian reported on the problem of counterfeit malaria medicines:

Some of the fake drugs contain artemisinin, but not enough to kill all the parasites in a child’s body. Not only will the child struggle to recover, but the parasites that survive may become resistant to the drug and spread a form of the disease that ACTs (artemisinin combination therapy) will no longer cure.

Such scams make an epidemic worse, hurt the people who use them, and erode already thin trust in the idea that medicines and public health schemes can improve individual- and collective well-being.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, the Daily Nation reported on mobile phone scams of a type that our Uwezo-evaluation research team heard about in various villages last summer. Because Kenya has a very sophisticated technology for transferring money via mobile phone accounts, fraudsters have sent fake SMS messages telling people they have won a prize, and tricked victims into transferring their own money.

We found that citizens were increasingly ignoring all unsolicited messages, assuming that none of them could be trusted. It would not be surprising if some followed suit by reducing their use of this wonderful technology for financial transactions.

In order for most new technologies to realize their potential for improving human well-being, they must be trusted by citizens within society. In the U.S., there’s not much threat to online banking because of the occasional unsolicited email from the Nigerian lottery commission. But where the use of internet- and bio-medical technologies are still in their infancy, similar scams have the potential to wreak substantial and lasting havoc.