Nigeria or Bust: No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

I came in to the office today and fired up my e-mail, as I usually do, expecting to see the usual litany of press releases, e-newsletters, messages from coworkers and so on, wondering what I should write today for your small business edification, but I got this instead (it is reprinted verbatim): 

Good Day,
Thank you for your devoted time and willingness to adhere to me, i really appreciate it and i promise you will never regret it, as a matter of fact this will bring change in our lives and our children children will reap from this establishment, I'm not here to waste any of your time or mine but to tell you what the transaction/business is all about. There has been an account here in my country south Africa that has been dormant for years in a bank i work as a branch manager (ABSA BANK) a well known commercial bank; of which the owner of this account Mr. Morris Thompson died in a plane crash with his family and since then no family member knew about this account and no further claim has been made by any of the extended family, the money in this account is about USD 15M and my bank has tried every move to locate any of the family member but to no success.

I saw this as a life time opportunity, I would like you to be the next of kin, and I will furnish you with every detail and arrangement to follow and believe me I have carefully worked out the modality before asking for your assistance. it will be 100% risk free since i'm directly at the helms of affairs. in your bid to accomplish this transaction with me, i will furnish you the details and guide lines to go about things.

Note; Kindly send your reply to the below stated email, after today i will be unable to access this very email due to network difficulties most of the times.

Thanks for your anticipated co-operation!

Kind regards,
Abbey Komotso
Send reply to, abkomotso@hotmail.com
M:B +27 780045343

OK, it’s centered in South Africa this time, but the name is the same: The Nigerian Scam! Actually, I get excited when one of these things worms its way into my inbox. While this is a minor example, oftentimes the sheer creativity and the brazenness of the BS involved is simply staggering. So, as a public service, I am going to break this down for you. 

Visiting the Spanish Prisoner: A Little Background on the Scam

Technically, this is called an Advance Fee Fraud, but it also goes by the name of the Nigerian Letter, the 419 Fraud or the Nigerian Money Offer. The number "419" refers to that part of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud. Essentially, the idea is that the victim pays a little money up front in order to receive a much larger sum in return. The basics go back to a much older scam called the Spanish Prisoner, where the con man tells the victim that a there is a rich prisoner who will share a fabulous treasure with the victim if they would only send money to bribe the guards (or the judge) to secure his release.

The modern scam is much more recent, originating in the early 1980s when the Nigerian economy went into decline. Originally, the scam was local, targeted on businessmen who were interested in shady deals with Nigerian oil companies. From there it spread to businessmen outside the country and from there, with the advent of e-mail, to everyone. Today, the practice has spread into many other African countries, to Asia and into Eastern and Western Europe. 

Formula 419: It Cleans Out Even the Most Stubborn Bank Account

According to the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Ghana, here is how it all works:

In the most common formulation, someone from an African country contacts you and claims they are the relative of some important government figure, or a high-level banking official, and in order to gain the release of a huge sum of money held in their country, the funds must be sent to a foreign account (yours) through a check or wire transfer.

They say that if you send a portion of the money back, you can keep the rest. The checks they send you for deposits are counterfeit, but the money you send them from your account is real.

In order to send you the money via a wire transfer, they'll ask for your bank account and financial institution routing numbers. With your financial data in hand, the scammers will create a counterfeit check drawn on your account and deposit it into theirs.

There are numerous variations of this scam - the loot may be gold bars or diamonds and your funds (or just your account numbers) are needed to gain the release of the treasure.

If you are the cautious type and decline to send funds by wire, you may be invited to come to Africa to inspect the loot in person.

Some gullible Americans have actually traveled to Africa with large amounts of cash in order to "buy in" to one of these scams. When they arrive in Africa, they are quickly relieved of their cash and threatened with death if they don't leave immediately. Needless to say, neither local law enforcement nor the U.S. Embassy are able to recover funds lost in such a scam. 

After the Scam: What Happens to the Victims?

Depending on who is involved and how deeply the victim is enmeshed in the scam, the consequences of these scams can be considerable, ranging from monetary losses to kidnapping and murder. Often, the victim is also turned into a criminal.

Money. You can lose hundreds, thousands, tens or even hundreds of thousands. In an article published on Snopes.com, Special Agent James Caldwell of the U.S. Secret Service Financial Crimes Division said in a 1997 interview, “We have confirmed losses just in the United States of over $100 million in the last 15 months, and that's just the ones we know of. We figure a lot of people don't report them.” In 2006, a study in the United Kingdom determined that the UK economy as a whole lost approximately £150 million annually with victims losing an average of £31,000. 

That is a lot of money and it gives you an idea of how many scammers there are out there working this con, considering that the success rate of the scam is estimated to be around 1%. These figures, however, also represent people who lose their savings, their investments, their homes—everything!

Physical Harm. Don’t think that this stops with money. That 1% translates into a lot of money and the people behind these scams tend to play for keeps. This has led to numerous cases of assault and battery, kidnapping for ransom and murder. 

Emotional Damage. It is hard to be conned out of any sum of money without feeling like a fool. What makes it worse is that once the scam is exposed and explained, that foolish feeling is inevitable. The fact is that no matter how you justify what you did, no matter how many times you go through all the so-called proof the scammer provided to prove their sincerity, no matter how comforting and understanding your family and friends are and no matter how well they love and support you through this ordeal, there remains that insistent voice in the back of your mind that insists upon calling you an idiot while it reminds you of all the things you should feel guilty about having foolishly lost all that money. It takes a lot of strength to learn from that experience, more than some possess, unfortunately:

Leslie Fountain, a senior technician at Anglia Polytechnic University in England, set himself on fire after falling victim to such a scam; Fountain died of his injuries.

In 2006 an American living in South Africa hanged himself in Togo after being defrauded by a Ghanaian 419 con man.

These aren’t the only ones, but they illustrate the point. Confidence criminals prey upon your gullibility and your trust. They then violate that trust in a way that has been described as a kind of emotional rape. 

From Victim to Criminal. One of the worst ways these scammers can ruin your life—as if the ways described above aren’t bad enough—is to put you in a position where you go from victim to criminal. For example:

A 72 year-old scam victim from the Czech Republic shot and killed 50-year old Michael Lekara Wayid, an official at the Nigerian embassy in Prague, and injured another person in February, 2003.

Thomas A. Katona, the former treasurer of Alcona County, Michigan, was sentenced to 9-14 years for stealing over $1.2 million in county funds in a Nigerian fraud scheme. The money lost accounted for half of the county's budget for that year.

Robert Andrew Street, a Melbourne-based financial adviser, stole over AU$1 million from his clients, which he sent to the scammers in the hope of receiving US$65 million in return.

The victim of one of these scams—a bookkeeper for the law firm of Olsman Mueller & James—stole $2.1 million from the firm in expectation of a $4.5 million payout in 2002.

While there have been numerous arrests, and authorities in Nigeria and other countries are cracking down a bit on the scammers—the U.S. Secret Service investigates these cases, but only when amounts exceed $50,000—the best way to avoid being a victim is to avoid the scam in the first place. Let’s take another look at that letter.

Good Day,

Comment:         Notice that the greeting is polite but generic.

Thank you for your devoted time and willingness to adhere to me, i really appreciate it and i promise you will never regret it, as a matter of fact this will bring change in our lives and our children children will reap from this establishment, I'm not here to waste any of your time or mine but to tell you what the transaction/business is all about.
 

Comment:         When you see language like this, so overly formal and Victorian, that should light some warning flares. Add in all the grammatical and mechanical errors and it should really put you on guard.

There has been an account here in my country south Africa that has been dormant for years in a bank i work as a branch manager (ABSA BANK) a well known commercial bank; of which the owner of this account Mr. Morris Thompson died in a plane crash with his family and since then no family member knew about this account and no further claim has been made by any of the extended family, the money in this account is about USD 15M and my bank has tried every move to locate any of the family member but to no success.

Comment:         Here is the payload of this little bomb, a cool $15 million just waiting for a home. No pesky relatives looking to cash in, the owner of the money conveniently dead and now you have a chance to get your hands on it! What could be better? No doubt he thinks I have forgotten that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

I saw this as a life time opportunity, I would like you to be the next of kin, and I will furnish you with every detail and arrangement to follow and believe me I have carefully worked out the modality before asking for your assistance. it will be 100% risk free since i'm directly at the helms of affairs. in your bid to accomplish this transaction with me, i will furnish you the details and guide lines to go about things.

Comment:         Looks like our new pal is thinking the same thing, and he found you to share this good fortune with! I wonder how he did that. Come to think of it, you should be wondering the same thing. Maybe Abbey’s a long lost cousin or something. Who cares, right? That’s $15 million we’re talking about, let’s not forget. Sure, it is a little shady, but good old Abbey is taking all the risk and, let’s face it, you don’t get wealth like that falling into your lap every day, right?

Note; Kindly send your reply to the below stated email, after today i will be unable to access this very email due to network difficulties most of the times. 

Comment:         Abbey wants a response right now, before he loses access to the e-mail. Makes you wonder, how is it that a bank branch manager in South Africa, a very modern society by anyone’s standards, can have to worry so much about their network? 

Thanks for your anticipated co-operation!

Kind regards,
Abbey Komotso
Send reply to, abkomotso@hotmail.com
M:B +27 780045343

Comment:         Looks like Abbey is counting on your answering his letter before his network crashes forever and that $15 million payday evaporates before your very eyes. Good thing he’s provided his telephone as well as his hotmail info—funny, I thought you could access Hotmail from anywhere—right by his signature so that I can get back to him as soon as possible.

I don’t think we should keep Abbey waiting. After all, he is just itching to string me along and relieve me of as much money as he can. I will, therefore, send him a polite and interested answerl. To maintain some level of security, I will not be using my real identity or disclosing the name I will use when dealing with my scammer. That said, let’s see how long we can string him along!

Check back often to see the latest updates. For more information on 419 scams, visit www.419eater.com.