Watch Out - It's a Scam!
By Wael Abdelgawad
You may be familiar with the infamous "419" Nigerian email scam - named after the section of the Nigerian penal code which deals with this type of fraud. It is also known as the "Advanced Fee Fraud." This scam has been around for many years and is sent out to victims via letter, e-mail, and fax. It consists of a message stating the sender has a large sum of money, usually between 20 and 40 million, and needs help transferring it out of Nigeria, or some other African nation. As a reward for your help, the sender promises to pay you a large percentage of the money, even up to a third. Easy money, huh!
(I do want to make clear that most Nigerians are not criminals. In fact, Nigerians themselves are often victims of this scam. Nigeria is a largely Muslim country and has a history of Islamic scholarship and activism. So I do not want to tar all Nigerians with the same brush.)
Actually, like a three-headed snake, the scam can bite you in three ways:
1. Steal your identity: Sometimes they request that you furnish them with blank company letterhead, and/or bank account information. First they use your letterhead to make fake Visa sponsorship requests to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to get into the US. Alternatively, they use the letterhead to send recommendations to other companies that will be enticed into the scam in the future. With your banking information they will draw up false financial instruments against your account and suck it dry.
2. Fake fees: Once you respond stating your willingness to help, the sender explains that there are transfer fees for the transaction, and that you'll need to pay them. Surprise! You get deeper and deeper into the scam as the money supposedly gets closer and closer to your bank account, but can't seem to quite get there without an increasing amount of money from you to create a will, a dummy corporation, licensing fees or what have you.
Of course, after this initial fee is paid, yet another payment is required. Perhaps this time, a bank or government official has discovered the goings-on, and requires a bribe. Finally, they convince you that the only way to close the transaction is to go to Africa personally. After all, how can they trust you with all that money?
3. Blackmail: Upon your arrival in Africa, to put it bluntly, you are screwed. They usually smuggle you into Nigeria without a visa (which is a serious crime there). Once you are in their hands, the moment you stop cooperating (i.e., paying them money), you will be threatened with arrest for illegally entering the country, your life will be threatened, most likely you will be severely beaten, and many times the victims are held for ransom. For this reason, it is common practice for the scammers to ask for the contact information of your spouse and other family members.
With the internet and email, this scam has become a massively perpetrated fraud, employing thousands of people around the world raking in billions of dollars a year for the scammers.
The emails usually claim to be from General Sani or Sanni Abacha, Lady Mariam or Maryam Abacha, or Mohammed Abacha. The money was supposedly stashed by General Abacha when he was ruler of Nigeria.
There are similar versions sent out by "John Bako" and "Mr. Anthony Umaru" in which the cash is oil money left behind by a disappeared American oil merchant. In other emails the money is proceeds from Sierra Leone diamond sales.
One widely circulated letter allegedly comes from a son of former Congo dictator Mobutu Sese-Seko, who seeks help transferring money that's secretly locked in a chest. Another comes from the daughter of a deceased Angolan rebel leader who seeks to prevent the government from seizing the $8.5 million her father left behind.
The Sept. 11 attacks and U.S. military action in Afghanistan have also inspired a new breed of scams, according to John Kane, research manager at the National White Collar Crime Center.
One such letter claims to come from a U.S. Special Forces commando who purports to have found $36 million in drug money while conducting a covert search-and-destroy mission against the Taliban. The "commando" says he has stashed the cash in luggage, but wants to keep it in someone else's bank account "for safekeeping."
Another offer comes from a man who claims he was delivering a large sum of cash to the World Trade Center on the day it collapsed. Although he escaped from the building, his colleagues believe that he is dead. He kept the cash, kept a low profile and is in great need of a bank account to quietly deposit the money.
"There are certain characteristics that these all have in common," said Kane. Con artists nearly always convey a sense of urgency, emphasize that millions of dollars are at stake and urge strict confidentiality.
The obvious way to avoid falling victim, of course, is simply to never give a bank account number to total strangers.
Iraq: New Twist on Old Scam
One thing these scammers do not seem to lack is imagination. The recent invasion of Iraq seems to have created an opportunity for these cheaters to weave new stories. And apparently some of them are targeting Muslims in particular. Below is an email I recently received. It follows the classic "419" format, with all the typical elements: a relative of a dictator, a large amount of money stashed away somewhere, and needing your help to retrieve it (amazing how someone would entrust millions of dollars to a complete stranger, huh?). If you express your willingness to cooperate, they will ask for your bank account number and details, and they will either drain the money from your bank account, or they will ask you to send a sum of several thousand dollars to pay for transaction fees. Then that will be the last you ever hear from them.
Of course it's just a scam, but it still makes good reading, with lots of authentic-sounding details. As a writer, I always enjoy a good story! So here's the email, with my comments in red:
Quite a creative story, eh? Aside from simply identifying themselves as Muslims, some of the scammers will actually appeal to you as a brother or sister in faith. So please beware of these robbers, just as you should beware of any scheme which sounds too good to be true.