Nigerian Letter Scam Thrives With E-Mail

E-mail has given an old scam new life, according to a report released this month by the Internet Fraud Complaint Center.

Nigerian e-mail fraud, so named because the scam's perpetrators usually claim to be Nigerian officials, was responsible for 15.5 percent of complaints received by the center in 2001, making it the No. 3 complaint behind Internet auction fraud (42.8 percent) and non-delivery of merchandise or payment (20.3 percent).

Typically, Nigerian e-mail scams come from spammers claiming to be a Nigerian official or widow of the official with access to an unclaimed bank account containing a vast sum of money. The e-mail offers the victim a percentage of the money if he will help transfer it out of Nigeria and into a U.S. account — the victim's. These scams typically ask for telephone and fax numbers and the victim's account number to “transfer” the funds. Sometimes the scams ask for upfront fees as well.

A new version of the e-mail scam surfaced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in which the scammer claimed to be a Russian citizen who was supposed to be in one of the World Trade Center towers depositing millions of dollars when it collapsed but wasn't, and was incorrectly presumed dead.

It is unknown how widespread the Trade Center version of the scam was.

This idea apparently is not new. It began as a postal letter scheme in the 1980s, according to the IFCC. However, e-mail has reportedly made attempts at such scams far more widespread, and e-mail has become the perpetrators' overwhelmingly preferred response mechanism.

“Unfortunately, the Internet provides an opportunity for nameless, faceless criminals to thrive,” the IFCC report said. “The traditional method of sending this scheme through the mail is becoming obsolete as the perpetrators of this scheme know that they can communicate under complete anonymity with large crowds and minimal effort using the Internet.”

There is encouraging news, however. Though the Internet has made the Nigerian e-mail scam far more ubiquitous than postal mail ever could, people who fall for it are either extremely few, or ashamed to admit it.

Of the 600 complaints that the IFCC has received concerning Nigerian e-mail scams, only two were to complain of being bilked — one for $1,000 and one for $31,000, the report said. The others were from concerned consumers who wanted to warn others.

The following is an excerpt from a typical Nigerian scam e-mail:

“I am Dr. Mrs. Mariyam Abacha, wife to the late Nigerian Head of State, General Sanni Abacha who died on the 8th of June 1998 while still in active duty. I am contacting you in view of the fact that we will be of great assistance to each other likewise developing a cordial business relationship.

“I currently have the sum of forty-five million United States Dollars which I intended to use for investment purpose specifically in your country. The money came as a result of a pay-back contract deal between my late husband and a Russian firm in our country's multi billion Dollars Ajaokuta Steel Plant.”

The IFCC, Richmond, VA, is a joint project between the National White Collar Crime Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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