Nigerian Email Scams Can Be Costly, Lethal

Columbia Free Times | July 8, 2004
Nigerian Email Scams Can Be Costly, Lethal


In April I got an email from someone offering me $2 million. The sender said her name was Lucy Haruna. “My husband Chief Joseph Haruna was the royal head of my community, Jesse, an oil-rich town in Nigeria,” Lucy Haruna wrote. “He made some money which he left for me and our children.” She claimed to hold accounts worth $12 million.

But there was a problem: “Due to poor banking system in Nigeria and political instability as a result of past military rules,” Lucy wrote, “my husband deposited this money in a strong room/safe with an open beneficiary in Apex Bank of Nigeria pending when he would finish arrangement to transfer it abroad as a contract payment. He was planning this when he died late last year of heart attack.”

To get her money, Haruna said, she would need the assistance of a foreigner, to whom she would transfer the money. The foreigner would then withdraw it, keep a portion and pass the rest to her. “I would be very grateful if you could accept to help me achieve this great objective,” she wrote. “I promise to give you 20 percent of the total funds transferred to your vital bank account as compensation for your assistance.”

Sound too good to be true?

It is. The offer is an example of what’s known as the Nigerian email scam or the 419 scam, after a relevant section of the Nigerian criminal code. While some scams of this type have been traced back to other African nations like Ghana and Togo, most originate in Nigeria. Such scams are the among Nigeria’s most lucrative industries, according to information on the web site of the 419 Coalition, an organization dedicated to fighting Nigerian scams.

Two years ago, 73-year-old Rupert Sessions of Orlando, Fla., received a message similar to the one I received. Sessions believed it. Soon he was sending checks to a Nigerian, whom he had never met, to cover seemingly endless expenses the Nigerian said were necessary to facilitate a transfer of funds. Sessions never received a dime in return. Now he’s out more than $300,000, according to the **Seattle Times** newspaper.

Sessions is not alone in falling prey to a Nigerian scam. “The figures are fuzzy, but a 1997 U.S. State Department report put worldwide losses at ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ annually,” the **Seattle Times** article says. “Last year, the FBI said 74 people were taken for $1.6 million.”

The United Kingdom’s National Crime Intelligence Services estimated in early 2003 that 150 British citizens had lost nearly $14 million to the scams. Those are merely the victims who admitted their losses. Most victims, according to the UK’s National Crime Intelligence Services web site, are too embarrassed to report their losses.

Many Internet users are at least somewhat familiar with the plot of the scams.

USC senior Britt Newman says he receives two or three Nigerian scam emails every week. “I even researched one,” Newman says. “The last one I got was from a guy who said his relative died in a Concorde crash. I looked it up on Google. It was a real crash.”

Nigerian scammers often include convincing historical details in their messages. Haruna’s correspondence to me referred to the warring Itsekeri and Ijaw tribes in the town of Jesse, Nigeria. The Itsekeris and Ijaws are real. So is Jesse.

Cosmetic differences aside, all Nigerian email scams share certain characteristics. “The target receives an unsolicited fax, email or letter often concerning Nigeria or another African nation containing either a money laundering or other illegal proposal,” says the web site of the 419 Coalition, an organization dedicated to fighting the Nigerian scam. In some cases, the victim is asked to pay an advance fee on what is promised to be a lucrative transaction. Other times, the scammers ask for the victim’s bank information in order, they claim, to wire money directly into the mark’s account. Of course, no money is ever wired, and victims’ accounts are cleaned out.

The scam I encountered was of the latter variety. After responding to Haruna’s message and asking for more information, I received an email from someone claiming to be her son Desmond. He expounded on his supposed mother’s tale. “My late father was the head of the Urhobos tribe,” Desmond wrote. “There was also the head of the Itsekiris and the head of the Ijaws. My home town Jesse is an oil-producing town in Nigeria. It consists of these three tribes. Each head was being paid royalties by the federal government.”

But it so happened that the head of the Ijaws was named leader of all three tribes. “Royalties that were being paid to my late father and that of the head of the Itsekiri people were stopped,” Desmond wrote.

His story got only more dramatic from there: “Intertribal war erupted and many government properties were destroyed including oil pipelines. Military police were brought in to stop the youths of both tribes from fighting. My late father was arrested and his assets were seized and his bank accounts were frozen. He later died in detention. But before his death he called to my mother's attention this fund which is presently locked up in a strong room in the Apex Bank of Nigeria.”

Desmond said, prematurely, he was very pleased that I had agreed to assist his family. I hadn’t. Nevertheless, he asked me to provide my address and phone number so he could contact me with details of the transaction. “I want you to act with utmost dispatch,” he wrote, “as there is no time to waste. Once again, I must remind you that this business is highly confidential.”

In other words, don’t tell anyone what I’m doing. Desmond knew that if I started to talk, someone would tell me that I was being conned.

The emotions of those victimized by the scams can be lethal. In March 2003, according to **The Prague Post** newspaper, a 72-year-old man in the Czech Republic went to the Nigerian embassy in Prague in an effort to recover money he’d sent to scammers. Enraged at the embassy’s inability to help him, the man opened fire with a gun, wounding one person and killing a 50-year-old Nigerian consul.

In the United States, the Secret Service tracks the scams and the Federal Trade Commission compiles statistics and attempts to educate the public. In South Carolina, the Department of Consumer Affairs takes complaints about the scams.

Consumer Affairs spokeswoman Brandolyn Pinkston says her agency gets complaints about Nigerian scams constantly. “There was a couple in Sumter this year that sent $40,000,” Pinkston says.

That scammers continue to find unwitting victims amazes Pinkston. “Why would someone contact you from a foreign country and ask you to help with money?” she wonders. “It’s too good to be true.”

The sheer variety of scams and the seeming veracity of the scammers’ stories might explain why people continue to fall for them. Said Pinkston, “It’s ‘my husband has been assassinated’ or ‘I’m trying to get my children out of an orphanage. I’ve had people who really thought these were true.”

Of course there’s more at stake than just money when people fall prey to scammers. “There has been loss of life when people go to Nigeria to get the money they feel is owed them,” said Pinkston. In other cases, scammers have **invited** victims to Nigeria as part of the charade—or simply to rob and kill them.

According to the US Secret Service, in 1995 an American was murdered in Lagos, Nigeria while pursuing a scam. A Secret Service press release about the incident on the agency’s website states that “victims are almost always requested to travel to Nigeria or a border country to complete a transaction. Individuals are often told that a visa will not be necessary to enter the country. The Nigerian con artists may then bribe airport officials to pass the victims through Immigration and Customs. Because it is a serious offense in Nigeria to enter without a valid visa, the victim's illegal entry may be used by the fraudsters as leverage to coerce the victims into releasing funds. Violence and threats of physical harm may be employed to further pressure victims.”

My correspondence with the Harunas never got as far as an invitation to Nigeria. After several plaintive emails from Desmond, each with a title like “I hope everything is satisfactory now,” I told Desmond I would want all of our agreements to be legally binding. He referred me to his lawyer, Mr. Kesiena Ishani Omone. According to Desmond, Omone would handle all of the paperwork. Of course, I couldn’t reach Omone directly. I’d have to correspond with him through Desmond.

I expressed my apprehension. Desmond responded with an email stressing the urgency of his situation. “The government will seize the money again,” he wrote. “That’s why we need your help immediately.”

According to the SCDCA, urgency and secrecy are hallmarks of Nigerian scams. A SCDCA flier describes a typical scammer’s line: “Just don’t tell anybody, and it’s imperative that you reply in ten or so business days to receive the money.”

When I asked why anyone would trust a stranger with so much money, even in such dire straits, Desmond responded, “My mother did say that God had directed her to contact you regarding this transaction.”

Divine guidance aside, I remained skeptical. In my final message to the Harunas I told Desmond that I had heard about so-called Nigerian scams. He was quick to respond, “Please, nothing like that is common here!”

If only it were true.

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