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''Nigerian 4-1-9'' Scams

Nigeria scam grabs dollars of gullible


Americans continue to fall victim to absurd schemes, especially from Nigeria, which is notorious for financial crime.
Hearst News Service

WASHINGTON - Wanted: Americans to share in the fabulous wealth of African despot. Must be discreet, willing to fork over thousands of dollars in advance and, above all, gullible.

Thousands of Americans each year fall victim to internet fraud schemes, with reported losses last year topping $70 million, according to the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, a joint operation of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, a government-funded research organization.

One of the most successful e-mail scams is one of the most unlikely. Federal officials call it the ''Nigerian 4-1-9'' scam because it originates in Nigeria and 419 is the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud.

There are numerous variations on the theme, but the outlines are familiar to anyone with e-mail:

A purported African official says he needs your help in transferring millions of dollars from the account of an African dictator or his family. You will receive a sizable percentage -- 20 percent to 40 percent -- by helping him do so.

The thief cons the recipient into paying ''transaction costs'' to consummate the deal. Invariably, the African official requires additional funds when the transaction encounters fictitious snags.

As preposterous as the pitch sounds, federal officials say it is very successful. Last year, thieves fleeced victims for an average of $3,000 per 419 crime, according to the Internet Fraud Complaint Center. Only Internet-related check fraud had a higher per-incident loss, $3,600.

The Federal Trade Commission has warned that the 419 scam is reaching ``epidemic proportions.''

Shawn Mosch, of Bloomington, Minn., who runs a website -- -- dedicated to warning consumers about such schemes, says the Nigerian 419 scam, also known as the advance fee scam, has raked in massive amounts of cash from victims.

''One person who contacted us said they lost $200,000 to $300,000,'' she said in an interview.

Even the financially savvy have been snookered. A Nigerian woman was convicted last summer in her country for bilking a Brazilian bank out of $242 million from 1995 to 1999 in what is believed to be the largest 419 scam ever to come to light. This version of the crime was hatched using documents sent by regular mail, not the Internet, to lure the victim.

The U.S. Secret Service pegs annual losses to the 419 scam -- both through the Internet and regular mail solicitations of victims -- in the range of ''hundreds of millions of dollars. . . . and the losses are continuing to escalate,'' the agency said in a statement.

The 419 crimes most likely are underreported because victims ''do not report their losses to authorities due to either fear or embarrassment,'' the agency said.

The scam is the vanguard of several lucrative schemes emanating from Nigeria.

The FBI issued an alert that Nigerian con artists were trolling dating websites for disabled people. The criminals posed as American citizens working for UNICEF, the U.N.'s charitable organization for children. They begin online romances and ask victims to wire them funds so that the ''American'' might return home to pursue the romance.

Another scam is the expert use of counterfeit cashier's checks. In this con, Nigerian criminals pose as would-be buyers of merchandise sold through Internet classified ads.

The ''buyer'' contacts the seller and says he will purchase the merchandise with a cashier's check made out for thousands of dollars above the asking price. The seller is asked to send the surplus money back to a phony shipping agent in cahoots with the ''buyer'' to cover costs for shipping the merchandise to Nigeria.

The criminal mails the seller a counterfeit cashier's check. Because it is a cashier's check, the funds are often immediately released by the seller's bank. The seller then wires the excess funds to the phony ''shipping agent.'' By the time the bank determines the check is counterfeit, the theft is completed. The seller is often held liable for the loss.

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