A target of a widespread scam tells a cautionary tale
By Vincent S.
It started innocently enough last
summer. A hand-addressed brown envelope resembling junk mail. The letter
was from someone identified as Dr. A.O. Moses, an accountant at the
Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. In an audit, he asserted, he had found a
payment authorization for $19.5 million to a defunct company. Although the
legitimate recipient no longer existed, the money still did and could be
paid into a bank account of someone said to be representing the firm. In
short, Moses added, he would like to send that money into my bank account,
and he was willing to give me a commission of 30%-$5,850,000 -- for my
help. I put the letter aside, not knowing what to make of it. Was it a
practical joke? Could it be real? Why had I been chosen to receive the
letter? (The missive said that some unidentified person had recommended
me.) And if there were one chance in a million the offer was on the level,
could I afford to pass it up?
My judgment was increasingly undermined by daydreams of what it would be
like to get $6 million. Money like that would raise my standard of living
to a level I could only dream of. A new house, private college for the
kids, the lifestyle of a gentleman of leisure. Fast cars, faster women. I
even did some research on offshore banks, where I might transfer the
Maybe Dr. Moses was scamming the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. But
so what? He was breaking the law, not I, I rationalized. (Actually, anyone
who took part in his plan would be an accomplice to a crime.) Besides, $6
million is a lot of money. Maybe this was God's way of rewarding me for a
(relatively) virtuous life. Maybe it was crazy, maybe it was a scam, but
what did I have to lose? Moses wasn't cheating me! I was 45 years old;
maybe my long-lost ship finally had come in. And this time, it wouldn't be
the Staten Island ferry.
When I called Moses, he was very happy to hear from me, but he had some
questions. Had I told anyone about this "highly confidential transaction"?
No. Did I have an account that could handle this without attracting notice?
Of course (which was a lie). Could I send the account information
immediately? Hmmm. Who knew what mischief that could cause? I thought
quickly and decided that I would set up an escrow account and give him the
number. In addition to making him happy, this would provide another
benefit: I would have absolute control over the entire $19.5 million.
Moses called back a week later, saying he had obtained all approvals. By
this time, my reservations had diminished. I began to think that, in a
matter of days, almost $20 million would be in my grasp. I began examining
new-car ads. Suddenly, I felt better-looking, even taller. Maybe a 30%
commission wasn't good enough. I deserved more for my sharp business
Soon, I received 12 pages of official documents crowded with legal
stamps, seals and cryptic signatures from the Central Bank of Nigeria,
NNPC, and my Nigerian lawyers, Enaki Enaki & Co. I didn't even know I
had lawyers in Nigeria!
The documents were inconsequential, except for two that troubled me. One
document, an affidavit, said I was the contractor under the original
contract with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. Great -- perjury! The
second document was from "Dr. Paul Ogwuma, executive governor of the
Central Bank of Nigeria." He wanted me to come to his country to sign the
documents. He explained that this was necessary to prevent payment to the
Gulp! I had to go to Nigeria? In response to my queries, some banker
friends told me that Nigeria was plagued by well-organized criminals who
had been accused of committing frauds around the globe. In fact, the more I
learned about the nature of some of their scams, the more concerned I
became that I was the target of one of the most classic.
In this scam, the con artists typically ask for help in hiding large
sums of money in a U.S. account. The money supposedly has been obtained,
they say, through overpayment on a government contract. American
individuals or companies are promised that they will get a slice of the
take once the funds are transferred to the States. But at the last minute,
before anything is paid, the scamsters ask for a fee or tax, which must be
sent to Nigeria. Send that money, and you can kiss it goodbye.
In the days after I had been approached, however, I didn't know all
this. I did know, however, that the State Department advises U.S. citizens
not to travel to Nigeria. Why? Because violent crime, kidnapping and
extortion are common there. The Nigerian government has a reputation for
being slow to respond to criminal complaints by foreigners, and the U.S.
can be of limited assistance if you are detained. If the Nigerians wanted a
reason to arrest me, perjury makes for a very good one. In any case, I told
Moses I couldn't go. I had several excuses: I didn't have a visa ("We'll
send you an official letter of invitation," he replied); the State
Department had issued an advisory ("It is just political propaganda"); my
traveling to Africa wasn't part of our deal ("It's an unexpected
contingency; great rewards require great risks").
of the warnings that Nigeria's central bank has been running in
publications around the globe.
But my antennae really went up when Moses -- sounding like a used-car
salesman saying "trust me" -- pledged to guarantee my personal safety. Once
Moses realized I was adamant, he suggested that we get "my" Nigerian
lawyers to represent me at the central bank.
Days later, Moses told me that Enaki Enaki & Co. wanted 2% of the
$19.5 million contract's value as a fee, with half paid in advance. The
lawyers wanted $195,000 immediately wired to their account in a bank in
Boston. But why couldn't the fee be paid from proceeds after the transfer?
I called one of the Enakis. No amount of cajoling would get him to modify
his demand. The next day, Moses reported he had convinced Enaki to cut the
advance fee to a mere $100,000.
I became very frank with my new good friend: "I don't know you or the
Enakis. I am not sending you $100,000. That's just bad business. You must
borrow the money, find a partner, find a loan shark. They will get paid in
Moses then appealed to my greed. He talked about his dreams, and by
implication, mine. He wanted to change his life with a once-in-a-lifetime
windfall. That was a thought that hit home. A couple of days later, Moses
told me he had sold his home and his car, raising $25,000, but that we
still needed $75,000.
I was weakening.
In fact, I was on the verge of doing something very stupid when
Masters of Deception, a book on white-collar crime that I had
ordered, arrived. On a hunch, I turned to the index. To my enormous
disappointment, there was a section on the "Nigerian Scam."
With my head, I realized that I simply had become the latest mark. My
heart was harder to convince. I kept hoping that Moses was scamming the
Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. instead of me. A trip to the Internet
removed any doubt that I was being foolhardy. The Nigerian Scam is more
commonly called the "419 scam" (named after the section of the Nigerian
statute that makes it a crime), and the "advance fee fraud" by the U.S.
There are so many variations on this fraud that it is impossible to
describe them all, but according to the 419 Coalition
(http://home.rica.net/alphae/419coal/) they have three common elements: They all center on greed (yours),
gullibility (yours) and money (yours).
Until recently, the 419 scam had operated with impunity for more than a
decade almost exclusively out of Nigeria. But in the past few years, the
scam has spread to Europe, according to a Secret Service spokesman. The
spokesman said the agency documents more than $100 million in 419 scams
every year -- and that figure underestimates the scope of the fraud because
many victims never report the crime. Many experts estimate that the true
toll exceeds $1 million per day in the U.S. alone. Millions of scam letters
are mailed every year, to targets found in telephone books, trade
associations and mailing lists, and have been received in more than 75
countries. The Secret Service has a database of tens of thousands of
Nigerian phone numbers that have been used by 419 scamsters. Pretty
impressive, considering that there are fewer than 600,000 working phone
numbers in the entire country.
The 419 scam is, of course, illegal in Nigeria, too. And although the
Nigerian government has been advertising to warn people about the scams,
they exist on such a massive scale many law enforcement officials believe
that senior members of successive Nigerian governments have colluded with
the crooks. (The government strongly denies this.) In fact, since receiving
the initial letter, I've received two similar ones from Nigeria, from
gentlemen who want to be my good friends, too.
As for Dr. Moses, he still hasn't given up. Recently, he called me and
suggested that we meet in Amsterdam to take some steps that, he said, would
bring us both toward our goals. And, oh, by the way, he added, don't forget
to bring along "$15,000 in cash to cover expenses." Sorry, doc, you won't
be seeing me. I'm going back to playing Lotto: It's legal and, frankly, the
odds of collecting are better.
VINCENT S. CASTELLANO is producer and host of "Real Estate Nightmares,"
a talk show on WEVD, a New York radio station.