Most people with e-mail accounts have seen the messages in their inbox.
The subject line reads “Urgent Business Request,” and in the body of the message a seemingly desperate person asks the recipient to help transfer money out of Nigeria and into the U.S. The message, in broken English, is sprinkled with words like “top secret,” “trapped funds,” “utterly confidential,” and promises a cut of the funds in return
Most people who get these messages know it’s a common scam referred to as the “Nigerian e-mail scam” — officially called the “419 scam” and also called the Advance Fee Fraud — and they delete them.
But others are falling for the 90-year-old trick, and it's costing them hundreds — even thousands — of dollars.
Mary Winkler, the woman accused of killing her pastor husband in Tennessee, was said to have been duped by the scam, causing tension in her relationship with her husband. Her family members just this week claims she was abused by her spouse.
A 76-year-old woman in Port Charlotte, Fla., recently reportedly lost $42,000 to the scam; she wired $30,000 to a person in New York and $12,000 to alleged employees of the Central Bank of Nigeria, a local paper in Florida reported.
The number of people falling for the scam is steadily increasing, with 55,419 lodging complaints in 2005 of at least receiving an e-mail that appeared to be a scam, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That's almost three times the amount received in 2002, which was 21,616.
Because the scam takes so many forms and affects so many industries, it’s impossible to nail down exactly how much money is lost to the fraud, according to Patricia Armstrong of the Postal Service Inspection.
But Audri Lanford, co-director of Scambusters.org, a service that helps fight Internet fraud, estimates that $200 million a year is lost to the Nigerian e-mail scam or variations of it.
There are three types of people who fall for Nigerian e-mail scams, according to Lanford, who says she has heard from hundreds of victims. Many who fall for it are typically under extreme financial difficulties.
"They're at the end of their rope," Lanford said. “They look at this as a potential saving thing for them."
The next group of victims typically expects something for nothing, she continued.
"They haven’t heard of it before, which at this point is surprising, and they're excited that they can get this money for nothing — and they don't wonder why someone's going to give them millions of dollars."
Lastly, she said, people affiliated with religious groups tend to fall victim to the scam. Frauds often target ministries, Lanford explained, because they are hoping to give large amounts of money to charity. "It isn't for personal gain," Lanford said.
Church leaders will receive an e-mail saying that the sender's deceased spouse wanted their estate to go to a good cause, and the sender has picked this particular parish after praying to God. Then the minister or church leader is asked to send money to cover wire transfer costs and other incidentals.
Kim Bruce, spokeswoman for the U.S. Secret Service — the agency charged with investigating the fraud — said it's nearly impossible to prosecute the scammers because they live in other countries.
“It’s very prevalent,” Bruce said. “It’s out there, because we get word of it all the time. There aren’t a lot of arrests because it’s in other countries.”
The Secret Service once kept a branch office in Lagos, Nigeria, to help investigate financial fraud stemming from that African country, according to the FTC.
The Nigerian government says the country is a hotbed for scammers because of mass unemployment among an educated population and large extended families for whom people have to provide for, according to an advisory issued by the Secret Service.
One of the reasons people are still getting swindled, Bruce said, is because there are several new twists to the same old scam.
Last month, an e-mail circulated posing to be from FBI Direct Robert Mueller, telling recipients they've inherited a large sum of money, and in order to retrieve it, they must obtain a special FBI-approved certificate. Of course, responders must send money in order to get the certificate.
In another scam, instead of claiming to have inherited a large sum of money, some potential swindlers will pose as soldiers from Iraq needing to transfer money to a U.S. bank account. Then, just like the traditional scam, they will ask victims to wire them money to cover endless transfer fees, promising a cut of the final amount. Of course, there is no final amount. If a check is ever sent, it’s sure to be counterfeit.
Another new trend, Bruce said, comes with the rise in popularity of auction Web sites.
“It’s very prevalent on Ebay, and people selling things online,” Bruce said.
Scammers will bid on an item for sale and tell the seller the check is in the mail. The seller ships off whatever he is selling — a $1,500 laptop computer, in the case of one trusting New Yorker, as reported by the New York Daily News — before receiving money for the purchase. Or the victim may do receive a check, but it bounces when cashed.
“The person will send the item, and then find out the check is counterfeit,” Bruce said.
Another trend involves classified ads. Scammers will post fake job ads, and interested parties are asked to fill out an application, complete with personal information that includes date of birth and Social Security number — everything the scammer needs to swindle the victim.
In the Iraq scam, the swindler poses as soldier needing to transfer money into a U.S. account. The victim then is asked to send money to cover the transfer fees.
The Army Criminal Investigation Command recently issued a press release warning people stationed overseas against e-mail scams. But Christopher Grey, chief of public affairs for the command, said the warning was only precautionary, and that soldiers aren’t being targeted by the scam.
“It is intended to assist our Army families. We just wanted to make sure we protect our force,” Grey said, adding that there are “very few, less than a handful” of reported cases of fraud in the Army.