Friday, May 26, 2006

Advance Fee Fraud a/k/a 419 Scams

Show of paws here: who has NOT received an unsolicited, poorly spelled, grammatically painful, ALL CAPS e-mail:

-- Informing you that some schmuck in a Third World African country managed to scam several million dollars before dying tragically, and somebody needs your help to get the money out of the country before the gummint gets its greasy little paws on it?

-- From/involving Mariam Abacha, and her unlucky passel of crumb-snatchers?

-- Rich expatriates meeting their messy end on the Sagbama Express Road, but leaving a trunk full of money with nobody to claim it?

-- Somebody discovering they've got esophageal cancer, and want to get right with God by donating their earthly riches and can you help?

Congratulations -- you've had a brief touch with the murky world of Advance Fee Fraud; also called the 419 scam.

Theoretically, the 419 scam gets its numerical moniker from Section 419 of the Nigerian Penal Code which concerns fraud.

That's the story, anyway. Having lived in Nigeria, I have serious doubts as to whether or not they've actually got a Penal Code, much less one covering fraud, but that's neither here nor there.

419 scams are a major money-maker for various Third World countries. Conservative estimates place reported victim losses at hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Factoring in the folks who don't report their losses out of embarrassment, or other reasons, and the 419 scam edges close to the billion-dollar-a-year mark.

Since money and politics go together like peanut-butter and jelly, it should come as no surprise that the organized 419 groups have a fairly healthy amount of leverage in Third World politics, indeed many Third World dignitaries were the Oga (boss) of a 419 ring before oozing over to the political side of the house.

This, plus the international nature of the 419 scam, plus the relative anonymity of the World Wide Web; makes investigation of Advance Fee Fraud difficult, actually arresting and prosecuting scammers bloody difficult, and seeing them actually punished next to impossible.

The actual mechanics of the fraud are fairly simple.

It begins with an entry level guyman (scammer) who is hired to visit the various guestbooks found throughout the Internet. From these, he will cull hundreds, or thousands, or more, e-mail addresses.

Once he has a good list of addys, he will copy-and-paste a letter crafted by someone else and supplied to him by his organization, and send that letter to all the addresses. As an example, we will say that this letter purports to be from a lawyer who represents a person who allegedly has in their possession 30 million dollars American.

The letter is a heart-wrencher, describing how the Government is going to take away his money, and how he needs the assistance of a foreigner to get his money out of the country. It goes on further to promise that the foreigner who aids in this endeavour will receive a certain percentage of the total as payment for services rendered.

Say, 10 percent, "risky free".

Of the thousand or so people this is sent to, several may respond. The original scammer is in charge of seeing how dedicated these potential victims are.

Of the several initial respondents, one or two will believe the scam. This is when that victims contact information gets passed up the chain.

The next guyman in line will now send e-mails asking for phone numbers, official letters with letterheads, drivers licenses or other forms of ID. Usually, this is disguised as a matter of trust: the scammers tells the victim he wants a scanned copy of his/her DL to prove that the victim is a worthy, dependable person.

In reality, any scans of offical documents, ID cards, letterheads and such are passed on to the forgery part of the 419 operation, to make documents to aid in other scams. Usually, an offical ID will be offered by the scammer in trade, (I'll show you mine, if you'll show me yours). The ID beign offered by the scammer having been conned out of a previous victim.

Once this is done, the money-making part starts. The scammer will contact the victim, remind them of the massive amount of money waiting for them, but sorrowfully affirm that there are unpaid court costs. Could you send $100?

The victim, thinking of the millions of dollars he/she is going to receive as payment in the future, sends the cash -- usually by Western Union or MoneyGram.

In return, the scammer sends an offical-looking bank documents, signed and sealed (letterhead adapted from a letterhead scammed out of a previous victim), informing the victim that the money is ready to be transferred to his name.

Oh, but there's a problem. This news is usually delivered by phone, if the scammer has managed to get a phone number from the victim. A corrupt government official has discovered what is transpiring. He could ruin the whole thing. He may be amenable, however, to a small bribe, and what is $200 American weighed against the vast riches that will be yours...?

The money is sent, in return, the victim gets another offical-looking notice saying that the Govenrment of Nigeria has approved the transaction.

Next, the scammer states that the money has been transferred to a foreign bank on Nigerian soil -- along with more official-looking documentation, congratulations, and so forth ... Oh, he hates to be a noodge, but all this running around uses up gasoline, and gas being as expensive as you know it is, would it be possible to get a small stipend for all this work...?

And so on, and so forth. Up to the part where the scammer informs the victim that the money is ready to be transferred to his/her bank account, and would you mind sending the bank account number, along with passcodes -- only to verify identity, of course!

It would be amusing, if it weren't for the fact that people lose thousands of dollars -- or more -- in small amounts to these critters. Death by a thousand cuts.

And it's not only the loss of money. Victims have been kidnapped and ransomed in the past, and some have been beaten or killed.

Lest you think that such a scam would only work on people who are crooked anyway, the first Nigerian 419 scam I ever encountered involved a little old lady who had been told that the orphaned children of Mariam Abacha needed her aid to get out of the country before enemies of their dead parents completed vengeance and murdered the orphans.

She wound up sending several thousand dollars, thinking she was getting these poor orphans out of the orphanarium, paying off corrupt orphange staff, bribing customs officials to look the other way, buying the plane tickets to get the poor, terrified sprogs onto the Freedom Bird to the safety of another nation...

She lost several thousand dollars for all the best reasons.

419 scams: Don't get suckered by them. For further education, clicky:

http://home.rica.net/alphae/419coal/

http://www.secretservice.gov/alert419.shtml

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/07/09/419_scam_anatomy/

http://www.419scams.com/

Or use the search engine of your choice, by inputting "419 scam" or "advance fee fraud"

LawDog

3 comments:

1894C said...

LD,

Several years ago when I first started getting these via e-mail I went to the trouble of finding out who in the US Gov. was responsible for investigating them (as you said it is the secret service) I contacted them by e-mail and actually called my local office.

It took considerable effort on my part to do all this and their response was... zip.

In fact them told me that there is nothing they can do about it. They did thank me for bringing it to their attention though, but I got the impression that all my info was going in the circular file.

No wonder why these things are so common, the crooks know they has VERY little risk, and a good payoff.

Simple economics.

pax said...

'Dawg ~

Got a new variant in my email this morning. This one is allegedly from a Citibank branch manager in England, and involves money belonging to a man who "died as a result of torture in the hand of Sadam Hussein during one of
his trips to his country Iraq."

No African nation involved. How odd ...

pax

(Huh, the word verification is "kkhpfl" -- sounds like a poorly-contained sneeze.)

LawDog said...

Pax, the Iraq War has provided a nice new det of variables for the little creeps. I have about 30 e-mails in a catcher account, all purporting to be from American soldiers who a)have located some of Saddams wealth that was hidden in barrels; b)need my help to get the misgotten moolah out of the country; and c)can't write the English language worth a darn.

*sigh*

You should have seen the 419 letters after 9/11 and after the London bombings.