Savvy Consumer: The Nightmare of Nigerian Letter Scams

You receive a letter or e-mail from somebody claiming to be an official (or the relative of an official) with the Nigerian government or a Nigerian company. The writer explains that a government contract has just been fulfilled and there is a surplus -- usually between $10 million and $65 million. You're asked to provide a bank account into which the surplus can be deposited. In exchange, you will receive a commission.

Great deal, right? Of course not. It's a scam.

The Nigerian scammers typically ask targets for their bank name and address, account number and Social Security number "in order to complete the transaction." Those who provide the information soon find that their bank accounts have been emptied and their identities stolen.

Sharp-eyed Dorothy H. was too smart for the scammers. She received a Nigerian letter and called me. For this sweet retiree living in a mobile home park, the letter was first a shock and then a hoot. Here's the actual text of the letter Dorothy received:

Dear Sir:

Request for urgent business transaction

Transfer of $35 million American Dollars

I am the financial comptroller of the Nigerian National Petroleum corporation. This is money we got from gratification of contracts we awarded toward technical assistance analysis supervision and behaviour or the components of the optimized system.

The contract has been completed and the contractor has since been paid remaining the balance of the $35 million American dollars which is our 10% commission for numerous assistance. This money is now ready for payment by transfer to an account that would be provided through the machineries of the Central Bank of Nigeria through our foreign exchange reserve in New York within (48) banking hours.

Now our problem lies that we do not have a foreign account as such an account is against the civil service bureaucracy in Nigeria. We therefore decided to seek your assistance for a hitch- free transfer of this fund to an account you will provide. You would be entitled to 35% for providing an account where the funds would be lodged while 10% is mapped for contingencies/expenses and 55% will be for myself and my colleagues.

If you can assist in this regards, fax to us 234-1-5851214. Your company's account or personal account with the bank name, physical address with telephone, fax and telex lines/numbers and your company's name and physical address with phone and fax numbers.

This business will be carried out on the following terms: You will maintain absolute sincerity and confidentiality. Our share of the fund remitted into your account will be disbursed as we so desire immediately your account is credited.

We got your contact through our National Association Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture. If you are satisfied with the above conditions, send me a reply immediately by fax.

--Mr. Isa Ahmed.

It's a scam so outlandish it's hard to believe anybody falls for it -- but people do. Let me get this straight. You receive a letter from Nigeria. You don't know anyone in Nigeria. You're asked to help launder money. And you actually believe you're going to make money?

Believe it or not, Americans lose hundreds of millions of dollars to the Nigerian letter scam every year. It's hard to pinpoint the precise dollar amount because many victims are too embarrassed to come forward. One man lost $400,000 before he reported it to the authorities. Another actually traveled to Nigeria in search of his portion of the money.

Trouble is, U.S. authorities can't prosecute the Nigerian perpetrators unless they travel to the United States. The Secret Service, which investigates many financial crimes, did establish a task force at the U.S. embassy in Lagos, Nigeria. In 1996, Secret Service agents helped Nigerian police nab 43 people and seize telephones, faxes and fake letterhead. During the raid, authorities found files on victims from around the world.

In the last couple of years, Nigerians -- and others -- have diversified into another area. It's called a check overpayment scam. They contact people who are advertising something for sale on the internet, like a car. The scammer offers you your asking price so you'll say yes. They then send you what looks like a cashier's check for MORE than the amount you agreed upon. They make an excuse why you should send the difference back to them or to a third party. Many victims do it, only to find out that the cashier's check was a fake and they are now out hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The bottom line on offers like this -- if it looks too good to be true, it most likely is. And if you're not sure, there are some specific things to look out for:

Know the Signs:

  • The letter is from Nigeria or another African country. Or it's from an African living elsewhere, like Europe. The Nigerian letter scam has been passed down through the generations and across borders.
  • The letter arrives in a brownish envelope. That's very typical.
  • The envelope or e-mail is addressed to "President" or "CEO" or another flattering term as if the writer believes you run a company.
  • The writer urges you to keep the matter confidential.
  • The letter is written in over-the-top "officialese," and yet words and punctuation are used incorrectly.

Where to complain:

The U.S. Secret Service investigates outbreaks of the Nigerian letter scam. If your letter arrived through the U.S. mail, you can also contact the postal inspector for help.

Author's note:

This is the second in my series alerting budding college graduates to the world's most common scams. I always say seniors are a con artists' favorite victims. Senior citizens, of course, and seniors in college who are about to make real money for the first time.

-- EL