SKOPJE, Macedonia, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- The syntax is tortured, the grammar mutilated, but the message -- sent by snail mail, telex, fax, or e-mail -- is coherent: an African bigwig or his heirs wish to transfer funds amassed in years of graft and venality to a safe bank account in the West. They seek the recipient's permission to make use of his or her inconspicuous services for a percentage of the loot -- usually many millions of dollars. A fee is required to expedite the proceedings, or to pay taxes, or to bribe officials -- they plausibly explain.
It is a scam two decades old, and it still works. Only last month, a bookkeeper for a Berkley, Mich., law firm embezzled $2.1 million and wired it to various bank accounts in South Africa and Taiwan. Other victims were kidnapped for ransom as they traveled abroad to collect their "share." Some never made it back. Every year, there are five such killings as well as eight to 10 snatchings of American citizens. The usual ransom demanded is half a million to a million dollars.
The scam is so widespread that the Nigerians saw fit to ban it explicitly in article 419 of their penal code. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo castigated the fraudsters for inflicting "incalculable damage to Nigerian businesses" and for "placing the entire country under suspicion."
"Wired" quotes statistics presented at the International Conference on Advance Fee (419) Frauds in New York on Sept. 17: "Roughly 1 percent of the millions of people who receive 419 e-mails and faxes are successfully scammed. Annual losses to the scam in the United States total more than $100 million, and law enforcement officials believe global losses may total over $1.5 billion."
According to the "IFCC 2001 Internet Fraud Report," published by the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, Nigerian letter fraud cases amount to 15.5 percent of all grievances. The Internet Fraud Complaint Center refers such rip-offs to the U.S. Secret Service. While the median loss in all manner of Internet fraud was $435, in the Nigerian scam it was a staggering $5,575. But only one in 10 successful crimes is reported, says the FBI's report.
The IFCC provides this advisory to potential targets:
-- a. Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as Nigerian or other foreign government officials asking for your help in placing large sums of money in overseas bank accounts.
-- b. Do not believe the promise of large sums of money for your cooperation.
-- c. Do not give out any personal information regarding your savings, checking, credit, or other financial accounts.
-- d. If you are solicited, do not respond and quickly notify the appropriate authorities.
The "419 Coalition" is more succinct and a lot more pessimistic:
"-- 1. NEVER pay anything up front for ANY reason.
-- 2. NEVER extend credit for ANY reason.
-- 3. NEVER do ANYTHING until their check clears.
-- 4. NEVER expect ANY help from the Nigerian Government.
-- 5. NEVER rely on YOUR Government to bail you out."
The State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs published a brochure titled "Nigerian Advance Fee Fraud." It describes the history of this particular type of swindle: "AFF criminals include university-educated professionals who are the best in the world for nonviolent spectacular crimes. AFF letters first surfaced in the mid-1980s around the time of the collapse of world oil prices, which is Nigeria's main foreign exchange earner. Some Nigerians turned to crime in order to survive. Fraudulent schemes such as AFF succeeded in Nigeria, because Nigerian criminals took advantage of the fact that Nigerians speak English, the international language of business, and the country's vast oil wealth and natural gas reserves -- ranked 13th in the world -- offer lucrative business opportunities that attract many foreign companies and individuals."
Potential targets in Britain and the United States alone receive about 1500 solicitations a week, according to London's Metropolitan Police Company Fraud Department. The U.S. Secret Service Financial Crime Division takes in 100 calls a day from Americans approach by the con-men. It now acknowledges that "Nigerian organized crime rings running fraud schemes through the mail and phone lines are now so large, they represent a serious financial threat to the country."
Sometimes even the stamps affixed to such letters are forged. Nigerian postal workers are known to be in cahoots with the frauds. Names and addresses are obtained from "trade journals, business directories, magazine and newspaper advertisements, chambers of commerce, and the Internet."
Victims are either too intimidated to complain or else reluctant to admit their collusion in money laundering and fraud. Others try in vain to recoup their losses by ploughing more money into the scheme.
Part 2 of this analysis will appear Tuesday. Send your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org