Letters are written on official-looking Nigerian government letterhead, faxes sent from places like London, money transferred to legitimate-sounding places like Hong Kong. The scam operators dress up and play the part of government or military officials in face-to-face encounters. Computers often are used to forge documents.
In one recent instance, a scam letter was written on stationary appearing to be from the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.
“Some of these guys can really put a fairly convincing letter or fax together,” says a Commerce official.
Nigeria is a former British colony, and many of the scammers speak and write English, so these rip-offs commonly target people in English-speaking countries. Elaborate laundering operations funnel the money around the world to buy goods for sale back in Nigeria. In many cases, accomplices in the United States and other countries help the perpetrators, officials say.
The Nigerian government has blamed the rise in scams on the country’s problems of decades-long mass unemployment, extended family networks, the age-old thirst for a quick buck, and the greed of foreigners.
Throwing Good Money After Bad
The scammers are so good, some victims are strung along for months and spend thousands of dollars, unwilling to believe they’ve been taken.
“It’s like being a gambler, who throws good money after bad — the deeper you get in the more reluctance you have to back out,” says Caldwell. “It’s not unusual that we have seen victims lose more than $1 million.”
“Once people get hooked, my experience is they become more and more resistant to accepting that it’s a scam, because they become vested in the deal,” says a Commerce official. “It’s almost like … denial, they don’t want to believe that it’s not true.”
Many times a family member or friend of a victim will ask authorities for help. When the bureau receives the information, they try to talk the person out of becoming victimized or subjecting themselves to further victimization.
“We’ve done that quite a bit, where we’ve talked people off a ledge, so to speak, and got them to come around and believe they’re victims,” Caldwell says.
“We’ve gone so far in the past to actually pull people off airplanes,” he says. “We’ve gotten to these people and pulled them out of potentially either harmful or certainly cash sensitive situations and gotten them out. We’re really quite proud of that.”
But, he adds, “Clearly some people never ever come to the realization that they’ve been a victim to a fraud, and think that one more payment and their windfall is going to happen.”
Nigerian Scam Chronicles
The 4-1-9 scams come in a number of varieties. An Oregon man named Brian Wizard in July published a book about his experiences with Nigerian scammers, in which they worked a bizarre 4-1-9 variant called, Black Currency Scam.
In his book, Nigerian 419 Scam, Game Over!,Wizard describes how Nigerian cons proposed he pay $8,000 to help them buy special chemicals to “clean” a suitcase supposedly full of illicit U.S. $100 bills, and another $2 million in a vault.
Meeting in a hotel bar in London, the Nigerians told him each bill had a smudge on its face that would prevent detection by a scanning device as it passed through U.S. Customs.
“They just tell you their story about why they need your money,” says Wizard. “They needed to buy the chemicals, and they just happened to be out.”