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msnbc.com

Two new flavors of the age-old Nigerian e-mail scam are making the rounds, and at least one of them appears to be gaining traction. Hundreds of victims have recently fallen for a variation that plays upon people’s misunderstanding about how bank cashier’s checks work. Meanwhile, other scammers are trying to take advantage of heightened interest in Iraq, posing as frightened Iraqis trying to move money out of that country before hostilities begin. The scam also took a deadly turn last month, when a victim in the Czech Republic allegedly shot and killed a Nigerian diplomat after losing his life savings to the scam.

IT’S LIKELY THE world’s most pervasive e-mail scam. There are hundreds of variations, but the theme is the same: a rich Nigerian national needs help moving funds out of the country. Victims are told they will earn a large percentage of a million-dollar fortune simply by offering their bank account as a temporary holding place for the money. Naturally, the thieves, who generally are from Nigeria, merely raid the participants’ financial accounts.

The scam is old and widely known, but it still works. Earlier this month, the United Kingdom’s National Criminal Intelligence Service said that about 150 British citizens had been fooled by the scam, losing a total of £8.4 million (about $13.5 million), according to The Scotsman, a British newspaper.

And the stakes can be even higher.

One victim who went to Africa to hunt down this fortune was captured by his con artists and tortured, according to the British report.

Another, a 72-year-old Prague man who had lost his life savings, allegedly stormed into the city’s Nigerian embassy last month and shot two people, killing 50-year-old Nigerian consul Michael Lekara Wayid.

Scam artists and their copycats have continued to adjust their pitch as members of the public become more aware of the hoax. The latest flavor tries to prey on what might be the lowered defenses of a war-jittery public, who might feel tempted to help an Iraqi trying to flee the country and save his fortune.

“I am brameem anu {sic}, i the son of a victim of oppression in iraq. my father was a successful businessman in bagdad-iraq, and not too long the iraqi presidential guards came into our house at about one a.m. midnight, picked up my father away, only to find him few days later, dead in front of the house,” one version of the e-mail reads. “At present we are not also safe because they believe my father has been financing the opposition group in surport of the Americans, but it’s just a way of cleaning out the few christian minority in Iraq and this is the best time to do so. we are christian and my father happens to be one of the few rich christian in iraq.”

The e-mail is clearly targeted to those who favor military intervention in Iraq.

“I want you to know that your government are actually doing a great job to see that this tyrant gets out of power. One thing we ask from you,on behalf of my mother and sisters,is to please indicate your interest in helping us secure a safe place for the bulk of our fathers funds in the bank over here before the tyrant iraqi government clamp on it.”

Participants are asked to allow $120 million to be placed in their bank account; $20 million goes to whoever does the favor.

CASHIER’S CHECKS FOOL HUNDREDS

The e-mail is an obvious fake, and it’s not clear anyone has fallen for it. But another, more complicated flavor of the Nigerian scam involving cashier’s checks has hit hundreds of victims recently.

Shawn Mosch, who lost $7,200 to this scam last year, now operates a victim’s advocate Web site. She says she gets 20 to 50 e-mails each day from victims who are being solicited by the scam. Just since Feb. 20, when she started keeping detailed records, victims have lost $54,000 to the scam, she said.

In this version of the scam, auction sellers are paid with a cashier’s check that’s worth more than the purchase price. Sellers are asked to cash the check and then wire the difference to an account in Nigeria.

The scam is now so common that the Treasury Department last month issued a warningto beware of believable counterfeit cashier’s checks issued in the name of Frost National Bank.

The checks are being issued “nationwide,” the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said, adding that the “high quality” forgeries contain: “the bank’s routing number; a copy of the bank’s three horses heads logo; (and) the facsimile signature of Rebecca Huckabee.”

GOOD AS GOLD?

The scam works, Mosch said, because most people believe bank cashier’s checks are as good as cash — and often, bank tellers tell customers just that.

Funds deposited with cashier’s checks are generally available much faster than funds from personal checks, generally within 24 hours. Once the money is in the victim’s account, they feel safe wiring the money, Mosch said.

“The bank says the money is good as gold,” Mosch said.

But weeks later, when the cashier’s check turns out to be a fake, the bank makes the victim pay.

“Then the banks says, ‘Remember that thing we told you was good as gold? Well it was fool’s gold,’ ” she said. Bank customers are surprised to find that even though the funds from the cashier’s check were deposited in their account, they are still liable to return the money in the event the check is a fake.

Mosch said she received an out-of-court settlement from her bank, but most victims — and she has collected stories from “hundreds” since last July, she said — are out the money.

The cashier’s check scam initially targeted those selling high-ticket items like cars online, she said, but has since expanded to many other categories, including pet sales.

Potential victims should be suspicious of any complex-sounding transaction that ultimately involves a wire transfer. The scam artist will generally try to offer a believable explanation: In one case, the overpaid check was described as a refund check from another Internet deal that didn’t work out. It’s cheaper to simply have the third party mail the refund check to the new seller, rather then to Nigeria, where it will be exchanged, and then back again to the United States, the con artist claims. Ultimately, sellers are asked to wire the difference to Lagos, Nigeria, Mosch said.

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