April 01, 2003


 Internet technology fueling Nigerian scam

Posted March 15, 2003

The Nigerian "advance fee fraud" persists, and some veterinarians are among those who continue to receive solicitation letters. The Secret Service—the lead U.S. federal agency directed to finding the perpetrators—calls this the 4-1-9 fraud after the section of the Nigerian penal code that addresses fraud schemes. The Secret Service is an agency of the Department of the Treasury.

The Nigerian desk officer with the Department of Commerce said this scheme has actually increased in prevalence, with the advent of e-mail and cybercafes. In Lagos, it's become a fashion or game for teenagers to send these letters, he said. Corrupt military regimes have stolen millions from the country, leaving a culture with few economic opportunities, he added, so Nigerian youth idolize successful scam artists.

"Nigeria is a haven for scam artists to hide and practice their trade. You can disappear easily because there is no reliable enforcement or infrastructure," the Commerce official explained.

He said $100 million is bandied about as the estimated loss each year, but in reality, could be much more. Some victims have been professional persons, he said, although he does not know whether veterinarians have been among them.

On Feb. 19, a Czech citizen who fell prey to the scam shot and killed Nigeria's consul in the Czech Republic at the Nigerian Embassy in Prague. Reportedly, the victim had visited the embassy regularly over the past year to try and recover the money he had lost.

High-tech has facilitated the ability to spread these fraudulent activities. The perpetrators acquire contact information in various ways, including through the Internet and likely by buying contact information from companies whose sole purpose is to collect e-mail addresses for the niche market.

United States government assistance to Nigerian authorities has helped break up some fraud rings. It's difficult, the Commerce official said, because Nigerian law enforcement officers are grossly underpaid and often corrupt, leaving them vulnerable to payoffs by scam artists.

The solicitation letters have many incarnations. In a few of the examples, the letter writers purported to be a princess, a Nigerian government official, an officer at a petroleum corporation, a barrister, and the president of the Republic of Nigeria himself.

Whatever creative scenario is proffered by the perpetrator, the central scheme is that a reputable foreign (eg, American) company or individual is needed so the Nigerian correspondent can transfer a multimillion-dollar overpayment on a procurement contract, or funds from an overlooked Nigerian bank account, or an undeclared windfall from crude oil sales during the Gulf War. Nigeria is a major oil producer and a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, so billions of dollars are funneled through the country, giving the false image of wealth and making the claims of large bank accounts seem plausible.

All those act as fictitious "hooks" to draw the victim in. As compensation, the accomplice is supposed to receive several millions dollars. To "facilitate" the transaction, the victim is asked to cover relatively paltry "fees"-such as lawyer fees, drug clearing fees, environmental protection fees, and bank fees. Lured on by the promise of a huge payoff, the victim pays the seemingly bureaucratic but bogus fees. They are also sometimes asked for their Social Security number and other personal data, which scam artists can use to apply for loans and drain personal bank accounts via identity fraud.

Nigerian scam artists are increasingly coming to realize this fraud scheme is blackening their nation's reputation, the Commerce official said. To counter, they are moving into other African countries with neutral reputations, mainly Ghana, Togo, Benin, and South Africa.

If you receive an e-mailed Nigerian scam letter, the Secret Service asks that you forward it directly to them at 419.fcd@usss.treas.gov. The agency is collecting a massive database of letters to pinpoint where the letters are originating. Mailed letters are less common now, but if you receive one, send to the U.S. Secret Service, Office of Financial Crime, 950H St. N.W., Suite 5300. Washington, D.C. 20223. For more information, contact the Nigerian desk officer at (202) 482-5149.