Feds: Woman Embezzles $2.1M in E-Mail Scam

In a twist on so-called Nigerian 419 scams, a bookkeeper has been charged with embezzling $2.1 million from the Detroit-area law firm for which she worked and wiring the money to offshore accounts.

Named after a section of the Nigerian Criminal Code, 419 scams typically start with an official-looking communication from someone claiming to be a senior Nigerian official with access to a huge sum of money and in need of a “partner” to transfer the money, often $10 million to $60 million, out of the country.

The target is usually offered a substantial percentage of the money in return for setting up a U.S. bank account. Once hooked, the target is told that something is threatening the deal and is asked to pay upfront money such as taxes or attorneys' fees to keep it alive. The scam's targets invariably are assured each fee is the last, then told new discrepancies have been found and that more money is required, often stretching the scam on for months.

The Detroit Free Press reported that Anne Marie Poet, Rochester Hills, MI, fell for such a scam when, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, she was offered $4.5 million if she helped transfer $18 million from a bank account into the United States.

From February to August, Poet is alleged to have wired amounts ranging from $9,400 to $360,000 from the law firm's account to offshore accounts. The alleged scam ended Sept. 4 when the Olsman, Mueller and James law firm was informed that a $36,000 settlement check to a client had bounced. Poet quit coming to work after Sept. 4, the Free Press reported.

Poet last week was indicted by a federal grand jury in Detroit on 13 counts of wire fraud. Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Jules Olsman, president of Poet's law firm, said he plans to sue Bank One for approving the wire transfers and allowing Poet to drain the firm's accounts, according to the Free Press.

Nigerian 419 scams net $100 million annually, according to the U.S. Secret Service.

“However, the statistics are really unreliable in this area,” said Secret Service spokesman John Gill, referring to the likelihood that many of those who fall for 419 scams are too embarrassed to report it.

Though the scams originate in several west and south African nations, “most can be traced to Nigerians that are committing the fraud,” Gill said. The Secret Service receives 10,000 letters, faxes and e-mails monthly from people reporting the scam.

Nigerian 419 fraud began as a postal scam in the 1980s, and has taken off astronomically recently because of the efficiency of e-mail.

Scam targets often are asked to travel to Nigeria or a border country to complete the transaction. They also often are told that a visa is unnecessary. The scam perpetrators then bribe Nigerian airport officials to get the target through customs. Once there, the fraudsters can use the target's illegal status as leverage to demand more money.

In another common scenario, once in Nigeria, the target is shown a trunk full of black paper and told it is money covered in black ink so it can be smuggled out of the country. The target is then required to pay a large fee for “chemicals” to clean the money.

Nigerian 419 scam targets are often convinced of the authenticity of the scheme by official-looking letterhead, seals, false letters of payment and bank drafts.

There are reports that some people have been kidnapped and even killed pursuing 419 scams. However, Gill said, “We've heard those same stories, but we don't have any information that would connect a 419 scam to a murder.”

The Secret Service considers the problem so serious that it has established “Operation 4-1-9” and has stationed agents in the U.S. embassy in Lagos to combat the fraud. Gill also said Nigerian police and bank officials have been cooperative, but was unable to furnish examples of progress such as arrests.

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