Gold does brisk business in Syria war — but at a risk

Updated 02 April 2013
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Gold does brisk business in Syria war — but at a risk

Abu Salem used to sell lunchtime sandwiches to office workers in Syria’s commercial capital. Since a rebel offensive turned Aleppo into a warzone last July, he has been buying up their heirlooms.
In Syria’s northern metropolis, as across the Middle East, those who can afford to have traditionally invested in jewelry for their womenfolk, especially gold, to ward against a rainy day.
As daily clashes between troops and rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad have brought a devastating halt to all normal economic activity, the trade in precious metals has boomed as people struggle to make ends meet.
It was the loss of electricity to power his refrigerators that was the last straw for Abu Salem’s sandwich stall.
The 40-year-old turned to the most lucrative alternative business available, braving the daily threat of robbery by the myriad of armed groups active in the many Aleppo neighborhoods beyond the control of Assad’s security forces.
“Many jewellers have fled the fighting. They had enough money to flee the country,” he told AFP.
“I buy and sell gold in order to feed my five children.
A few steps away, another gold dealer has set up his scales.
“Every day, people come and sell me 10 or 20 grams (310 or 620 troy ounces) of gold,” Abu Ahmed told AFP.
“Once, a customer came to sell me earrings and bracelets that weighed 200 grams. He was selling off his wife’s jewels.”
Umm Mohammed, 50, is among those looking to sell off their portable wealth.
“I have a gold necklace to sell. How much would you pay for it?” the mother of four asks.
For five grams of gold, Abu Salem offers 24,000 Syrian pounds ($ 240).
Umm Mohammed goes to his shop every day to weigh her family’s jewellery and check his prices.
“I’ve only got one necklace left now. It’s my son’s gold chain. It won’t be long before I sell it, because we need to buy food and clothes for the children,” she said.
Umm Mohammed’s husband used to work in a factory, but lost his job several months ago when the power supply was cut. Her family has only been able to get by thanks to the jewellery they owned.
Buyers are not hard to come by. Two years of devastating conflict have sent the Syrian pound into freefall and, for those with any money, gold is a popular refuge to maintain the value of their savings.
Before the uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011, a gram of gold sold for 3,200 Syrian pounds, and the Syrian pound traded at 65 to the dollar.
Today, one gram of gold sells for 4,900 pounds, and the pound trades at 113 to the dollar.
“Those who want to safeguard their wealth are converting their cash into gold,” Abu Ahmed said.
But there are big risks, fellow gold trader Abu Khaldoun underlines.
“Armed men come to steal from us. Some of them are members of the (mainstream rebel) Free Syrian Army,” the 49-year-old said.
“Nowhere is safe, and we are real targets for thieves. Some people are hiding their gold and money in holes in the ground.”
Abu Ibrahim, 45, has been in the jewellery trade nearly all his working life. He says he refuses to take sides in this conflict as his business frequently requires him to cross the frontlines.
He tells of a fellow trader who lost all his stock to an armed robbery.
“He had 12 kilos of gold in his shop. He lost 60 million Syrian pounds last week when armed men broke into his shop and stole the lot.


Russian agency offers fake restaurant reviews ahead of World Cup

Updated 27 min 3 sec ago
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Russian agency offers fake restaurant reviews ahead of World Cup

MOSCOW: A Russian marketing agency has offered to help restaurants in cities hosting the football World Cup use fake reviews to bump up ratings on review site TripAdviser, the agency’s owner has confirmed.
Marketing company Bacon Agency says it can circumvent TripAdviser’s algorithm for detecting fraudulent posts and publish reviews in foreign languages ahead of an influx of fans from abroad.
“What can you do if no Serbs and no Swedes have ever been to your venue and left a review?” Bacon Agency asks, in a brochure received by a restaurant in Yekaterinburg, which hosts Egypt and Uruguay in their first-round matches.
“You write it yourself!” the agency says.
For 35,000 roubles ($570), the agency promises a spot in TripAdviser’s top 10 list. “We are offering to help tourists find you, and to leave their money specifically with you,” it writes.
“We oppose any attempt to manipulate a business’ ranking,” TripAdviser said. “Our dedicated investigations team is proactive and extremely effective at catching those trying to solicit fake reviews for money.”
Fake reviews are widespread, but it is unusual for a company involved in the practice to discuss it so openly, or to link it explicitly to a sports event.
The World Cup has created lucrative opportunities for businesses in the 12 host cities hoping to benefit from well-to-do foreign fans at a time when Russians are feeling the pinch from a fragile economy and Western sanctions.
Contacted by Reuters, Bacon Agency confirmed it had offered the service, but said it only wanted to act as the middleman between restaurants and freelancers posting fake reviews.
“We understand that all this is illegal in the sense that TripAdviser is against it,” said Bacon Agency’s owner Roman Baldanov.
“We were just testing this niche, because we see high demand. It’s not because we’re bad guys who came in and said, look, you’ve got to start swindling ... All restaurants know that reviews are ordered, and many use this service,” Baldanov said.
He said nobody had yet taken up his offer. “The response we got was: thanks, but we are already doing this ourselves.”
Reuters tracked restaurants in six World Cup host cities over two months, noting an uptick in suspicious-looking posts.
An event like the World Cup increases incentives to post such reviews, said Stanford University’s Jeff Hancock, an expert in detecting fake reviews.
“Any time you start seeing reviews come in all at once, look sort of similar, have the same kind of language, then alarm bells should start going off,” Hancock said.
At least six restaurants in the TripAdviser top 30 list for Kaliningrad, which will host Croatia and Nigeria, appeared to fit this description.
Peperonchino, a cafe serving Italian cuisine 20 minutes’ drive from the World Cup stadium, used to get around one review a week.
But two weeks ago, reviews began to flood in — 45 in total — the majority from accounts with stock photos, created this year, and rating the cafe five stars. Peperonchino rose from 28th place to 2nd on TripAdviser’s list.
Sister cafe Peperonchino 2 also received a flood of reviews in the past fortnight, also 45 in total, 32 from such accounts.
“All our reviews are real and are left by our customers,” Peperonchino said. “It’s just we have a big loyalty system, a mobile phone app, and so on.”
In a strategy document seen by Reuters, Bacon Agency explains how to avoid detection by TripAdviser.
“The issue is that TripAdviser has developed algorithms which monitor user activity and when they spot an attempt to manipulate the numbers, they sanction the venue,” the agency writes.
To trick the algorithm, fake reviews are published using different IP addresses, devices, browsers and operating systems. Each account has a “back story” of earlier posts.
The reviews will be “full of real details about the menu and decor, as well as ‘real’ photographs, which we will ask you to take.”