News & Politics

Nigerian Bank Scams: Meet the Boys from Lagos

Those poorly written emails pleading for your bank account number have a long and sordid history and thousands of people have been fleeced.
Steve Chuks, who says he's the auditor general of "one of the prime banks" in South Africa, wants to make me rich. Not just rich enough to be able to afford tickets, parking, and hotdogs at an Eagles game, but rich enough to actually be able to live in Philadelphia and pay its 4.54 percent wage tax.

By e-mail, Mr. Chuks tells me he has found $126 million in a "floating account" in his bank from an industrialist who died without an heir. He says he found me, an honest god-fearing individual, "from the Girl who operates my computer." I am, he tells me, "the first and only person" he contacted. "No other person knows about" the money, he assures me.

The only problem, as he sees it, is that he needs to put all that floating money somewhere other than a South African bank. Since I am so honest, he'd like to move $26 million into my private bank account. I just have to send him my private financial numbers. He will sign a "binding agreement" and asks only for my "strong assurance" that I "will never, never" let him down. For my assistance, Mr. Chuks will pay me $9.1 million, 35 percent of the first $26 million.

It's a tempting offer that would significantly reduce my gap between net income and bills, currently being tied together by winning $3 on $10 worth of Lotto tickets. The ladies at my credit union will be intrigued by this sudden windfall, mostly because I have trouble balancing two anemic savings and checking accounts, each of which is federally-insured for $100,000, several times more than either account will ever have. To protect this new investment, I'd have to establish at least 260 separate accounts. With that many accounts, I might forget about one or two, and Mr. Chuks probably won't be very happy. So, the credit union deposit is out.

Hundreds of stock brokers would salivate to manage such an account. But, during the go-go '90s, when 10-year-old newspaper carriers were making money on stock tips, I invested $1,500 and entered the new millennium with $1,000 left. Mr. Chuks probably wouldn't like that either.

Reluctantly, I passed on his offer.

But I quickly received other emails, most poorly written, all with a hard-luck story, all with a lot of money to invest.

Dennis Odife, claiming to be a manager with the Eco-Bank of Lagos, Nigeria, told me about a German national who died in an air crash and left $35.5 million and no heirs. He knew I was a "reliable person" since he got that information from the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce. All I had to do to earn $7 million was to become a "distant relative" in this matter which, Mr. Odife assured me, was "100% safe and risk-free."

Felix Azu, identifying himself as manager of the Zenith Bank in Lagos, Nigeria, also found me by an internet search to be a "private and reliable" individual. Remarkably, he also had $35.5 million to invest from an Australian who died in an air crash and left no heirs. I also just had to "stand as next of kin" to take advantage of his "Risk Free investment."

Cocoa and mineral deposits drive much of Africa's economy -- and many of the letters lure Americans to accept "risk-free" investments from wealthy merchants who were poisoned by greedy business associates. Morgan Coleman, claiming to be the surviving son of a poisoned cocoa merchant in the Ivory Coast, had $11.5 million, for which I would receive $1.1 million. He received my name from the Ivorian Chamber of Commerce. Sule Gambari Jr., who got my name "through a woman who works in the Chamber of Commerce here in Ghana," got a revelation through prayer I would help him. His father, having been poisoned by those greedy business associates, confessed on his death-bed to having a special $18 million account. Mr. Gambari was willing to pay "some amount out of the total money." I immediately discarded him an unreliable. If he can't do at least 10 percent, I didn't want to even fill out a tax form.

From South Africa, Bernard Anyury, "after seven days of fasting and prayers," told me he's a 24-year-old whose father owned a cocoa plant, but on his death bed just after a car accident, disclosed he had deposited $22.5 million into a special account. Mr. Anyury wants to give me almost $3.4 million.

Several letters came from people who claimed to be widows and relatives of deposed African country presidents. Mariam Abacha, identifying herself as the widow of Gen. Sani Abacha, one of Nigeria's most corrupt presidents, wanted to transfer $37.5 million, "the very last of my family fund." She didn't reveal my commission but let me know that if I gave her my personal financial data and then contacted her brother-in-law my reward "will be substantial." Her family lawyer, though, was a better opportunity. Sunui Ibrahim has $50 million in a Netherlands bank. For being the beneficiary, I would receive 25 percent, $12.5 million, for this "no-risk" involvement. Obviously, the lawyer better knows how to deal with people.

Sonia Ngorina, widow of Chief Tejan Ngorina, owner of gold fields in Sierra Leone, found me from an internet search and determined I was a "reputable person." She had $23 million to invest, and would pay a commission of 15 percent. Mariam Seso-Seko, claiming to be widow of Zaire president Mobutu Sese-Seko, wrote from Morocco where she is living in exile after fleeing to the Ivory Coast. She tells me her husband apparently had deposited billions of dollars into foreign bank accounts, but that most have been frozen by other countries, probably because her late husband stole most of that money from his own people. Nevertheless, she saved $75 million, some of which will be mine. Naturally, everyone will send full documentation; naturally, all of it is semi-respectable forgeries.

To get the millions the victim must show good faith, putting up routine costs, such as license, bank transfer, and audit fees; they also pay government taxes and ubiquitous bribes to numerous "officials." After initial inquiries and friendly exchanges, the costs escalate in proportion to the victim's ability to be strung out, especially if they're stupid or naive enough for face-to-face meetings.

Victims are often invited to meet in Nigeria or a border country, where they are treated well -- just before they find themselves in even deeper problems. The victims, unwittingly carrying forged documentation and coerced into believing they are willing accomplices to international criminal fraud, are essentially held hostage. They're told that only by paying an additional bribe, often several thousand dollars, can they leave Nigeria without being arrested. Some protest. Since 1992, 17 persons were killed in Nigeria, according to the State Department, and more than 100 individuals had to be rescued. No Mafia loan shark ever stung a mark like the Boys from Lagos.

Using an elaborate world-wide network, with most of the ties primarily in Nigeria, Nigerian scam artists have fleeced victims of more than $5 billion since 1989. The U. S. Secret Service receives about 9,000 emails, 1,000 letters, and about 600 faxes every month from persons who have been contacted by the Nigerian scam artists, according to special agent Brian Marr. Most victims, however, don't report their contacts because, says Marr, "they realize it's nothing but a get-rich-quick scheme and are embarrassed."

Since June 2000, the Secret Service has maintained a field office in Lagos. The agents help train Nigerian national police and, says Marr, provide investigative leads to allow them to pursue their own cases. "We will aggressively go after this kind of fraud," says Marr, "as long as we can identify someone is attempting to do this inside the U.S." However, even with an increased Secret Service presence and cooperation from Nigeria, prosecutions are negligible. As easy as it is to use the web to set up the scam, "it's just as easy to take it down," says Marr. "It's like they're on one street corner one minute, somewhere else the next," he says.

Internet Service Providers, most based in the United States, usually don't block the transmissions, citing their reluctance to censor what might be legitimate transmissions from companies that are current in their payments, and because the nature of the web allows schemes to appear then disappear quickly.

In a two-month period, I had received more than 20 letters from persons who wanted to give me millions if only I'd provide a bank account for what most people would recognize as nothing less than a transparent get-rich-quick scheme. Just last week, Henry Jideofor, who identified himself as the auditor general of one of the prime banks in South Africa, wrote me an "urgent and confidential" letter, offering 35 percent return for just holding $26 million in income. It was the identical letter, but with different names, that Mr. Chuks had sent two months earlier. Apparently, more than one "auditor general" knew about that secret $126 million "floating account."

Walt Brasch's latest book is "The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era." He is a professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. You may contact him at [email protected]
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