Posted: 12/31/2003 7:47:20 PM EDT
Wednesday December 17, 2003
In the revolting world of spam, among the penis enlargements and worse, are the money laundering frauds so palpably absurd you might think only idiots would fall for them. An innocent Scottish chemist's shop is the latest to be caught up in these Nigerian frauds. Victims were promised they would inherit an oil company in return for an up-front fee. The fraudsters used the pharmacy's address, pretending it was a bank, and now dupes from Norway, New Zealand and the US have been turning up in Thurso to try and get their money back. How could anyone be so stupid? Easily.
With embarrassment, feeling a fool, I admit I was a victim of a Nigerian fraud. Looking back now, I can't think why I was so easily taken in but I did make a reasonable check. A hand-written letter arrived from a Nigerian 14-year-old called Sandra. It was nicely written on a religious school's headed paper, though not too perfect, telling me her sad story. Both her parents had died and she had to complete her last two years of school. Her results were good, and it would only cost £100 a year for the last two years to cover the cost. I wrote back and I also wrote to her headmaster, whose name appeared on the school letterhead, at a PO box. He wrote back in more adult handwriting to say Sandra was indeed a needy and promising student, and he enclosed her last term's report. It was an impressive document, each subject carefully filled in by a teacher with different writing, giving an excellent but not over-the-top report, with some subjects subtly lagging a bit behind. So I sent a cheque for £200 and received another of Sandra's letters, a bit too full of God's mercy and Jesus's blessings for my taste. I had an idea I might keep in touch with her to see what became of her. If I had any doubts, £200 was a modest sum for all the effort a fraudster took to create these letters.
But it wasn't about the £200. Not long afterwards my bank received a letter with a perfect copy of my signature, giving my bank account numbers, asking for £1,000 to be transferred at once to a bank in Osaka, Japan. Luckily, the bank thought to ring me up and query it. It turned out that a host of recent scams had asked for money to be transferred to Japan and the police had alerted all banks. It took me a little while to work out how they got my signature and my bank details, but then it clicked. Sure enough, when I reported it to the police, they laughed. They knew the Sandra letters very well and the real purpose was to sting the victim's bank account. It happened again last week when my bank got another request for a £1,000 transfer to Japan and I do feel a fool. Looking back at the letters now, I can see it all. For heaven's sake, she even said both her parents had died of the ebola flesh-eating virus.
Some charities have been badly stung by letters from foreign lawyers telling them of dead millionaires who have left hefty bequests to them: the charity is persuaded with the aid of convincing false documents to put up substantial legal fees to access the cash, only to find there never was a bequest. But most of the scam emails everyone gets daily invite victims to participate in criminal deals, complicit with fallen corrupt dictatorships, never mind how vile the regime: the worse the regime, the more convincing the scam. Astonishingly, the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) conducted a survey that resulted in an estimate that 1% of people initially contacted do respond positively. The particular combination of folly, greed and corruption is not as rare as might be expected.
A couple in my inbox yesterday are typical: Mr Davydov Sergey of the Savings Bank of the Russian Federation tells me that an American oil consultant died in an automobile accident leaving behind $30m. No relatives can be traced and the sum will revert to the Russian government unless I will stand in as next of kin. Just send my name, address and bank details; attorneys will draw up a fake will and I get to keep 30% of the proceeds. The other email comes from Maryam Abacha, wife of the deceased Nigerian former military ruler. As well as asking to put $40m into my account if I send her my bank details, she says she'd be happy to marry me too.
Everyone on email gets blitzed with these daily: offers come in from Qusay Hussein's financial adviser, holder of the missing $1bn from the Baghdad bank; bad Serbs and Bosnians; the Taliban and Afghan war lords; wherever illicit spoils need secret deals. Using real names of bank managers or politicians on the run, some are literate and urbane, others deliberately ill-spelled to fool westerners they are dealing with simple ignorant folk. In the average sting, victims hand over at least £22,000 in up-front "fees" or "bribes to officials" to ease the imaginary cash transfer. Most people don't report it: the police reckon they only hear the tip of the iceberg. After all, who would admit they agreed to launder Bin Laden's cash?
So who are these "victims"? The NCIS says: "Do not imagine that they are all humble little people, too stupid to know better, though some are. Many are millionaires and directors of businesses approached personally. They are life's natural risk-takers just doing the very things that made them rich in the first place." Just so. Should the police waste time on "victims" so venal and dumb?
The NCIS claims most of the scams orginate from Nigeria or the large global Nigerian diaspora. It began small-time in the 60s and mushroomed in the 90s, with large bundles of air-mails from Nigeria; two years ago it moved on to email. Why from there? "Clever, educated people with a long history as expert traders and dealers, they don't see it as criminal but as business. And they may think westerners deserve all they get."
The line between honest and dishonest business is easily blurred. We point fingers at Nigeria, this richest and best-educated country in Africa that should be a mighty power had it not been so catastrophically misgoverned, with legendary corruption. Yet what kind of global honesty is promoted, what model of good capitalism and good government? The US is about to hold another election that will be largely bought and sold by business and oil interests. Think of the corruption that US and UK conservatives carelessly unleashed upon the former Soviet Union in the name of extreme free market ideology.
The image of capitalism now being spread about the world is cowboy stuff: little gleaned from America extols the virtue of regulation, restraint and control. We reap from the third world what we sow: if some Nigerians learned lessons in capitalism from global oil companies that helped corrupt and despoil that land, it is hardly surpising they absorbed some of the Texan oil values that now rule the White House. Alas, the querulous, navel-gazing and increasingly non-internationalist EU seems in no mood at present to offer a different and better face of capitalism to the world.
I was so moved by Polly's plight that I sent her an e-mail to address her self esteem:
Since you were stupid enough to fall for the widely known scam in the first place, your comments regarding the state of my country's politics will be given the intellectual weight they are due....zip, nada, null, zed.
Happy New Year