As the Iranian economy crumbles under US sanctions, scammers are exploiting the popularity of state-backed game shows to swindle the middle class. 

For Iman Fard, a 30-year-old computer engineer in the northern Caspian coastal city of Rasht, it all started with a phone call from an unknown number.

“They called me around 9 PM, saying that they represented a radio station in Tehran. They said I was one of 14 people who were chosen by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology of Iran to receive a cash prize of 50 million rials ($455) for my reasonable and responsible use of my cell phone,” he told Asia Times.

“They said the ministry wanted to award me because I don’t use my cell phone excessively, make frequent calls, or send too many text and multimedia messages. After a brief talk, I was interviewed live for the radio station to share my sentiments about winning the prize” Fard said.

Initially, the scenario appeared reasonable to the young engineer, given the ubiquity of such competitions and rewards programs. 

“After the interview was conducted, a person who said he was in charge of the financial affairs of an IRIB [state broadcaster] representative in Tehran told me to go to an ATM machine and do a small transaction so that I could receive my monetary award. I dressed frantically – it was around 9:30pm – and went to an ATM nearby. He instructed me to take some steps and asked some questions about my bank account.”

“At one point, he was directing me to an action by which I would be transferring some of my balance to an account, whose number he had shared with me. I asked him what that was about, and he told me not to worry and that it was only a code which I was entering so that the cash prize could be deposited into my account.”

At that point, Fard realized it was a scam. 

“I told him that I didn’t want the award, after which, he quickly hung up on me,” he said. The engineer tried calling the number back several times, but there was no response. 

“The whole set-up appeared to be completely genuine and professional. They even interviewed me for three, four minutes and I was nearly convinced that they represented IRIB, and that I had won 50 million rials,” he said.

State entertainment monopoly

Over the past two years, as the United States has ratcheted up pressure on the Islamic Republic, IRIB has increasingly monopolized the right to entertain the public 

In the absence of private TV or radio stations, and with recurring crackdowns on the use of satellite dishes, the state broadcaster dominates the media scene.

Many popular state TV programs run text-to-win competitions which a member of the audience can enter by sending a text message with a certain keyword or digit to an easy-to-memorize number.

By doing so, the sender joins a huge pool of thousands and possibly millions of participants, of whom only a handful will be announced as winners to receive cash prizes or other valuable gifts.

These competitions have become increasingly diverse with time. Aside from competitions involving the sending of a short message, many shows that invite their viewers to dial “feature codes,” also known as Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), and take part in surveys, prediction challenges and polls. Out of countless people who take part in such contests, hoping to win a worthwhile prize, only a few are usually selected, which means the competition is always immensely fierce.

Navad is an example of a widely popular weekly television program previously broadcast on Channel 3 of Iranian TV, which was aired from August 1999 until March 2019. The football show’s SMS polls usually draw as many as two million participants.

That translates into significant profits for the telecommunication service providers that charge their users for sending text messages or using the USSD services, as well as the digital start-ups to which the state broadcaster outsources these competitions. 

The developers of a widely-used mobile application, Rubika, which operates on Android and iOS platforms, have been partnering with IRIB, as a sponsor for as many as 79 television programs, taking charge of hosting their polls, surveys, and competitions.

Rubika is developed by a firm called Tooska, which is partially owned by the Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran, and has signed a contract with IRIB, which according to some sources, is worth $272 million.

Celebrity impersonations

As the Iranian populace, and especially the middle class, sees its purchasing power slip on account of the draconian US sanctions, many people have pinned their hopes to winning big on a game show, partaking in as many television or radio competitions as they can.

Given the prevalence of these state-backed contests, the opportunity for hoax competitions is growing.

Underground conglomerates and fraudsters with expertise in IT, banking and social engineering appear to be behind a rise in scams.

Occasionally, a story will emerge in the local press about a victim who has lodged a complaint to the Iranian Cyber Police over losing a considerable amount of money after his bank account details were compromised. There are no confirmed statistics, however, about the number of people who have been targeted. 

Zahra Kavianzadeh, a 28-year-old language teacher, says she does not even participate in official TV or radio competitions. 

“I know there’s something wrong with these competitions. For example, once you send one text message to one of the short numbers, you will be subsequently bombarded with advertorial messages over a span of several months and it’s very disorienting,” she told Asia Times. 

“I’ve heard of some of these cyber criminals impersonating famous TV personalities to mislead the ordinary citizens. You receive a phone call from a high-flying anchor or talk show host to tell you that you’ve won the special cash prize of the show. 

Then, the scammers direct the person to go to an ATM, and either demand the security code on their bank card, or tell them to pay a nominal amount so that the larger prize can be deposited into their account.

“Some people are so simpleminded that they easily share their card’s password with the person on the phone, and they lose everything,” said Kavianzadeh.

For Iranians who have come to the conclusion that there are no economic prospects for them in a country ravaged by sanctions, cash prizes from television shows or radio programs offer hope of relief. Scam artists have taken note.