scam victim
Dateline NBC
Pam Krause of Almond, Wis., thought she was helping out a desperate mother in West Africa. Instead, she lost $18,000 to an elaborate, high-tech swindle, one of the many variations of the so-called "Nigerian scams."
By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 6/10/2005 6:37:00 PM ET 2005-06-10T22:37:00

The most familiar Nigerian scam is an e-mail offering lots of free money in exchange for helping someone with a name like Barrister Richard Okoya. The offer varies, but the theme is the same — help a downtrodden victim recover a large sum of money trapped in an overseas bank, and you will be rewarded handsomely.

For most, the e-mails are the butt of jokes and evoke a "Who would ever fall for that?" reaction. 

You'd be surprised, says Dale Miskall, supervisory special agent in charge of an FBI cybercrime squad in Birmingham, Ala.  He's been working Nigerian scams for the Internet Fraud Complaint Center for years; in January, he went to Nigeria to testify against suspects after a rare arrest.

There are now so many flavors of Nigerian scams, they are harder and harder to recognize, he said. Many even avoid the trademark details: the barrister, the overseas bank, or even the typical up-front wire payment.

"(Nigerians) are just great at social engineering. They keep finding new victims," Miskall said.  "And Americans are very gullible."

There are plenty of variations on the traditional scam. Nigerians apparently keep up with the news. In 2001, instead of a Nigerian barrister, the missing money belonged to an Iraqi national, persecuted under Saddam Hussein. The year before, it was family of victims of the Concorde plane crash.  Earlier this year, it was a tsunami victim; then, a U.S. solider killed in Iraq during the war on terror.  Anything to get an edge, or to catch victims with their guard down.

"This really is one of the worst e-mail scams we've ever seen, targeting the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq," said Michael Garcia, an assistant secretary with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, about the Iraq solider e-mail. "This is really despicable."

Can’t count on cashier’s checks
But Nigerian scams stretch far wider than e-mails asking for help moving money out of international accounts. In a much more elaborate version of the crime, scammers participate in legitimate online auctions, finish with the high bid, and send along a check to pay for the winnings.

The payment often arrives as a cashier's check,  thought to be good as cash by many U.S. residents. It's not.

The criminal sends more than the winning amount and asks for some to be wired back. When victims apparently successfully deposit the cashier's check, they figure the buyer is legit, and wire the overage, often to a bank account in Nigeria.  Weeks later, the bank discovers the cashier's check is bogus, and the depositor is responsible for the missing funds. Often, the victim is out both the merchandise and the money.

In another variation, Nigerians offer to donate money to charities they find online; then, they follow the same tactic. A too-big check is sent and a partial refund requested.

The key to the continuing Nigerian success, Miskall says, is the ingenuity and adaptability of the scam artists.  Many Americans have come to realize that wiring money overseas is a bad idea. So several years ago, Nigerians started recruiting U.S. residents as go-betweens, so they’d be able to ask victims to send money or packages to U.S. addresses. 

Online classified services like Monster.com are now full of job offers for what are listed as "re-shipping" firms.   Requirements of the job are simple: accepting goods or money and transferring them out of state.  Employees get to keep a whopping 10 or 15 percent of everything they ship.  But of course, it's a scam. Thousands of people have fallen victim to re-shipping scams, according to the United States Postal Inspection Service. 

Nigerians have adapted to the popular Craigslist service, too. Landlords are contacted by potential tenants, who offer to pay an up-front deposit by check.  Once the bait is taken, the renter asks for a return of some of the money — or, at times, all of it, claiming a promised visa from the U.S. government didn't arrive in time.  Colleges around the country have warned students about the scam.

Seduction for money
An even more insidious version involves Internet seduction.  Scam artists lurk in chat rooms with names like "40 and single," or "Recently dumped."  They reach out to a lonely woman, send flowers or candy, purchased with a stolen credit card. Eventually, they convince the new girlfriend to do them a big favor — help transfer funds out of the bank.

A recent scam revealed by MSNBC.com combined several of these elements. A California non-profit agency received a $3,000 check as a donation, but the donor asked for $2,000 to be wired back to Nigeria. Meanwhile, the con artists used the non-profit's bank account information to draft nearly $10,000 in fraudulent checks. They were sent to a woman in Alabama, who cashed them at her bank and wired the money to a person she thought was her new Internet boyfriend. When MSNBC called the woman, she was still convinced the man was simply working on assignment in Lagos, Nigeria, where she had sent the money. The woman had recently gotten divorced.

"There are a lot of lonely people out there," Miskall said. "And love on the Internet is blind."

Con artists from Nigeria even take advantage of the Internet Relay system for the deaf to trick consumers and merchants.  Special services allow the deaf to use Web pages to connect with specially trained operators, who place telephone calls on their behalf and act as translators. Several relay operators say the system is often abused by criminals — many from Nigeria — who use it to place free international phone calls.  Also, the fact that a relay operator is placing the call can put merchants off their guard. Some fall for the ploy, and find themselves shipping Bibles or wedding dresses to Nigeria, anything that can be sold for a small profit.

Nigerians have even gone so far as to create fake banks on the Internet , which appear to be loaded with the alleged missing money.  The sites might convince a skeptical consumer that there really is $4 million sitting unclaimed in an account somewhere. 

The Postal Inspection Service says authentic-looking fake money orders are also becoming common.

The Nigerians’ persistence seems to know no bounds. Ad-hoc bands of consumers frustrated by the ongoing scams are fighting back by answering scam e-mails and sending criminals on false leads, a practice know as scam baiting.  But Nigerians have even used fraud fighters to commit cons. In a recent e-mail, scammers have tried to trick people who want to support the activities of anti-scam site 419legal.com.

"It has come to the attention of 419legal that a group of scammers have been using the name of 419legal and the South African Police Service (SAPS) in scam letters," the site says.  Of course, the e-mail says the agency is trying to raise funds to fight ... Nigerian scams. Video: Avoid Net scams

While many of these tricks might sound obvious, Miskell says, the key to Nigerians' success is persistence. Their plot keeps morphing, and as consumers become educated, the storyline is altered. But there is one constant theme: an overseas wire transfer.

Ultimately, whatever yarn is spun, all the scams come down to getting a consumer to send money via a wire transfer overseas — often to Nigeria, but sometimes to Canada or another foreign country.  It's never a good idea to wire money, particularly out of the country, Miskell said. 

Avoiding wire transfers would put a big dent in the success of Nigerian scams

Other advice for consumers:

  • Use Google. Dozens of sites now index large lists of names and other elements of Nigerian scams.  If unsure, put parts of the story into the Google search engine and click. If it's a scam, it's likely someone else on the Internet will have published a complaint.
  • Use the telephone. Nigerians will be very reluctant to give out a phone number and will try to negotiate most of the transaction over e-mail. That buys them time to answer hard questions.  Asking for a phone number up front, along with other specific contact information that can be verified, will short-circuit many scams.
  • Verify the legitimacy of a bank. The FDIC maintains a database of federally insured banks on its Web site.
  • Always use a credit card.  Consumers have wide protection when paying for Internet-based transactions with a credit card.  Checks are easily forged — even cashier's checks, sometimes called bank checks. U.S. consumers think they are guaranteed. Banks can take up to two weeks to confirm authenticity of a cashier's check, according to the American Bankers Association — even if the funds are made available to the depositor.  If a check doesn't check out, the bank will take its money back. The consumer will be on the hook for any withdrawals made against that deposited amount.

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