Email's thousand and one scams

Mon, 04/09/2007 - 00:00
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by Alan Robles

"Can you assist?", reads the subject head of the email. It's from an African bank official who's looking for a partner to help him hide a fortune that's being hunted down by investigators. If you're willing to allow your account to be used, he'll immediately transfer the loot to your name.

Naturally, he explains, you can't touch the hoard – you'll merely be providing a safe haven until the investigators get tired of looking. But in return for your cooperation, he's willing to pay you a fee of several million dollars. So if you would be so kind as to send him your name, address, contact numbers, bank account name and your bank's address?

You probably know it's all a lie,. The email is a scam, possibly one of dozens you get every week. Typically, they have heads like "PLEASE ASSIST ME" or "URGENT HELP". Baloney, all of them. As you zap the mail straight to the trash folder, you might wonder, why do the scammers even bother? Do they take you for an idiot?

Why...yes, they do. In fact they even have a term for you. In the Nigerian language, Igbo, mugu means “big fool.” The con artists think you're a mugu who can be duped into giving them money. Think they're crazy? Then you don't know the statistics on how many online suckers there are (how about, 10 per cent of the United Kingdom's internet users?)

"I go chop your dollar" is a Nigerian music video that celebrates 419 scammers ripping off wealthy first world victims

Most common of the email scams is what law enforcers call the “419 advance fee fraud.” The number refers to a specific section of the criminal code in Nigeria, the capital of e-deceit. The 419 trick used to be pulled off using typewritten paper and airmail envelopes (remember those?), but the Internet has not only given the confidence trick legs, but also wings to swiftly fly around the world.

Email has let the scambags (so to speak) reach millions of potential dupes, and has turned 419 into Nigeria's most lucrative business. To get an idea of the industry's size: Nigeria is rated the second most corrupt country in the world after Bangladesh, and has a barely functioning justice and police system. Yet in spite of this, in 2003 police enforcers there still managed to recover US$200 million in ill-gotten gains from 419 scammers.

Although there are plenty of small operators, many 419 scams are run by organizations with branches in places such as London, Amsterdam, Brussels and Italy. In Nigeria, they're often protected by warlords, powerful businessmen and generals.

It all starts with an email sent blindly to thousands of recipients at a time. The pitch contained in the mail, according to the German magazine Spiegel, is called a “format”, and formats are churned out by specialist copywriters who get a percentage of the haul. The writers take pride in their formats, in the stories they concoct, the personalities they invent, and the way they phrase their English.

An increasing worldwide awareness of Internet scams has led to the evolution of dozens of format variants. The sender can ostensibly be from any number of countries, not just Nigeria, and might claim to be a banker, a lawyer, political refugee, a persecuted widow, even a buyer interested in something you might be selling online. In 2002 there was a brief time when the name of deposed president Erap Estrada's wife, Loi, was used.

Whoever the sender might claim to be, you can be sure of one thing, he's 100 per cent crook.

And whatever the stories are , they all have this in common: if you take the bait, you'll pay for it. Your contact will tell you a lawyer needs bribing, a package needs delivery, a downpayment has to be made, or a refund made on a check (fake) he sends to you. The sting can range from a hundred dollars to, in the case of the biggest recorded 419 scam, $242 million.

A decade ago, one German woman received a letter from Nigeria addressed to her recently deceased husband, asking what to do with the US$24.6 million in profit from the power plant he had allegedly invested in. Mystified, but intrigued, she responded. That decision would cost her more than US$300,000.

The 419 syndicates are always ready to put on a show for any mugu (Americans are the preferred targets) who responds to the bait. The syndicate provides contacts, phone numbers, even website addresses and phony documents. The German woman who was duped first flew to Nigeria, where she was feted, driven around in a limousine and put up in a luxurious hotel. But then, she was told, before she could claim her husband's millions, she had to pay a tax. After raising more than US$236,000, she found out she had to pay more. After she'd forked out an additional $120,000, her contact refused to have anything to do with her.


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