An Easily Avoided Version of the Nigerian Mail Scam
Where money, lawlessness and desperation collide, the human imagination knows almost no bounds. There are currently a number of illegal schemes working out of western Africa. Generally speaking, the scammers try to purchase goods* or property with counterfeit instruments (checks or money orders). Other familiar variations on the theme have the con artists claiming rights to a vast fortune (which you can have a slice of if you will send a small fee) or claiming to be heading relief efforts for local people.
When my father died in 1995, I inherited three plots at our local cemetery. These are notoriously hard for individuals to sell (the cemetery will buy them back for a couple hundred dollars apiece, but I’ll hold onto them for that). I marketed them on a website for $2,500 apiece.
After about four years without any activity (but the website listing is a very inexpensive gamble), I got an email. It was from a lady who claimed to be "Rose Smith" from Colorado. "Miss Rose" told me, in terribly broken English, that she was in Eastern Europe on holiday. She said that she would send me the money, plus some extra that I could forward to her funeral planner. Needless to say, this seemed a little bit suspicious.
Sensing the setup, I told her that I could not forward money—send only the purchase price. Despite all this, she sent me a money order for $6,550. This woman from Colorado, visiting family in Turkey (or possibly Albania, her emails were extremely muddled), sent a money order in an envelope with no return address. The stamps, however, were from (wonder of wonder) Nigeria. Uh-huh.
My next step was to make sure that I could not get in trouble for depositing this money order into my bank account. The quickest way to find out if it was fake, according to my local police, was to deposit it and see if it came back. My only risk was a small fee from my bank. Meanwhile, "Rose" was trying to make me forward part of the money as soon as I received the money order. I deposited it immediately, but did not tell her that I had received it for several days.
When the money order was returned unpaid (as we knew it would be), I wrote to her and told her so, feigning surprise and confusion. Now, the scam is obvious: fake money is sent and the recipient foolishly wires money to this supposed funeral planner. When the money order turns up as bogus, our foolish recipient is left holding the bill for four thousand American bucks. At this point, the cards were on the table I figured I’d hear no more from her. But she had one more incredibly sloppy gambit.
This time, Miss Rose wrote to me and told me that it was imperative that I wire $500 to her confederate in Moscow so that he could fly here and inspect the property. You have to give her this, she is persistent. I will point out, however, that she disappeared once I told her that I don't have that much money (so much for these fair weather friends!).
Over the course of these goings-on, I spoke to the local police, the FBI and the two different people at the Secret Service. They were all helpful and friendly. Before I put the money order in the bank, I made sure that I was not in any jeopardy depositing this in my account—I did not want to be accused of being in league with the counterfeiters or anything. Then, after it bounced, I talked to them and made sure they did not need it as evidence or something or my testimony—the Secret Service agent said that they don't even open an investigation on these sorts of cases unless a great deal of money was lost.
I only lost the five dollar "returned item" fee and a little time. The Secret Service agent told me that they have "filing cabinets full of those things," so mine would be of no help. The main thing I got out of this was a chance to see how these things work up close ... that and a foreign money order with the cool red block-letter stamp "COUNTERFEIT" across it—which has got to be worth at least five dollars just as a strange conversation piece.
There are many good sites with information about scams coming out of western Africa. Snopes.com has a good list of some of these and FraudWatch International (http://www.fraudwatchinternational.com/) has a page about the 419 scams. For a funny look at how one man took advantage of the scammers, forcing them to do some ridiculous stunts, see http://www.419eater.com/.
*A friend who has a small soap-making company tells me that she routinely gets emails from west Africa about "Soap Emergencies," the people need to get several hundred dollars worth of soap right now—they will pay later. Like I say, the imagination knows almost no bounds.