Nigerian scam artists now posing as Internet buyers
For anyone selling pricey merchandise on the Internet, beware greetings from Nigeria.
After years of flooding mailboxes, fax machines and e-mail accounts with artfully written letters promising lucrative profits from money transfers, Nigerian thieves are putting a new spin on an old scam.
Many people grew wise to advance fee frauds coming out of the west African nation during the '80s and '90s, largely thanks to warnings from consumer groups and law enforcement. The crimes are also called "4-1-9" scams, referring to a portion of a Nigerian penal code about fraud.
Because the United States has no criminal extradition treaty with Nigeria, law enforcement can do next to nothing to bring the Nigerian con artists to justice.
In the newest variation on the theme for stealing cash, criminals pose as potential buyers of large items for sale on the Internet, such as cars, furniture or even purebred dogs.
The fake buyer informs the seller he has an associate in the United States who owes him money and will mail the seller a cashier's check made out for more than the amount of the item, typically several thousands of dollars. The buyer requests the seller withdraw the extra amount after deposit and wire it to the buyer.
But days later, when the checks are determined to be counterfeit, the bank holds the customer responsible for the entire amount, even if the bank assured the victim the funds were good.
FBI Special Agent Mike McComas of Cape Girardeau has been familiar with 4-1-9 scams for nearly 10 years. Most originate in Nigeria, but some have come from other African countries.
Recently a man living outside St. Louis selling a trailer was contacted by a Nigerian con artist. The fake buyer sent a bogus check with an additional few thousand dollars, and he then called the man saying it was an accounting mistake and asked for the difference back immediately.
Some people won't listen
But the letter scheme prevails as the most common Nigerian fraud, McComas said.
"We have people come in here weekly with those letters," he said.
He warns people to avoid such deals, but some won't listen.
"I got a call one day about this and told the guy it was a bogus deal, but he went ahead and did it anyway," McComas said.
The man lost more than a quarter of a million dollars. The FBI ultimately decided not to pursue charges against him for conspiracy, McComas said.
Smuggling money into the country is considered conspiracy and depositing a bogus check, whether or not a victim knows the check was fraudulent, is considered bank fraud. Both come with fines and prison time.
"It comes down to the old adage that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is," he said. "It's sad how some people are led into becoming victims by their own greed."
That's exactly what happened to Shawn Mosch and her husband, Jeff, of Bloomington, Minn., who were swindled by a Nigerian con artist.
In October, the couple was selling a 1961 Buick Special online. They had offers, including some from out of state and one from Brazil, but none worked out.
"Then we got a call from a guy claiming to be a car dealer in Africa," she said. "He said he knew he would be able to sell it very quickly at twice the price there. At first, I thought we'd never really get a check."
The buyer called himself Adebisi Julius of Lagos, Nigeria. He told Mosch an associate in the United States owed him $7,200 and that person would send a $8,800 check to the Mosches. They were to deduct the price of the car, $1,600, and then send the balance to Julius in Africa -- $7,200.
When the cashier's check arrived in the mail, Shawn Mosch was still skeptical. She took it to her bank, where a teller told her because it was a cashier's check the funds would be available within 24 hours.
"I asked him if he was sure," Mosch said. "Because I wanted to make positive it was not bite-me-in-the-butt money, and he laughed and said, 'Of course, ma'am, 24 hours.'"
Sued the bank
Mosch actually waited 48 hours before she took out the portion of the money to be sent to the buyer.
A week later the check turned up as bogus. When the bank tried to make them cough up the $7,200, the Mosches sued claiming the teller misinformed them. They have since settled out of court with the bank but cannot disclose the amount.
Shawn Mosch wasted no time in warning others. In November, she formed an online support group for scam victims that now has 170 members, and she built an informative Web site called Scam Victims United at www.geocities.com/scamvictimsunited/.
"I tend to get right on top of things when I feel there's an issue to be addressed," said the stay-at-home mom. "I get 30 e-mails a day from people thanking me for putting together this site and sharing their stories. We've had 11,000 hits since the first week."
Mosch is contacting U.S. senators to ask them to make changes in banking laws to protect customers from fraud by requiring mandatory holding periods on all checks of a substantial amount, unless the customer signs a release, and setting a time period in which by law all banks must verify the funds are good on all cashier's checks.
But ultimately, it's up to individuals to avoid becoming victims, she said.
"The only good way to catch this is to call the bank a check was issued from, armed with the account number, the name of the account holder and the amount of the check, and ask them if it is a good check," she said.
'Blinded by greed'
Ben Blankenship of Seattle was wise enough not to go through with such a deal. In December, he was selling a 1967 Volvo on eBay, an Internet auction Web site. The lowest selling price of the car was set at $2,500.
"I was desperate to sell it to pay for Christmas," he said. "Things weren't going so well until I got this e-mail."
The e-mail came from a supposed buyer interested in the car who offered Blankenship $3,000. The buyer identified himself as James Norman in Cotonou, Benin, a small West African country west of Nigeria. He said his accountant, Bamidele Samuel, in Nigeria would receive the money.
"Wow! I thought," Blankenship said. "Someone wants to give me too much money for this car -- must be some rich sultan or something. Always suspicious, but blinded by greed, I wrote back and said, '$3,500 and it's yours, pal.'"
Norman told Blankenship an associate of his in the United States owing him $7,800 would issue a cashier's check to Blankenship to save time. He asked Blankenship to subtract the car's price and send the difference to him via a Western Union money transfer.
But Blankenship smelled a rat.
"Now super-suspicious, I didn't cancel the auction and did a search for 'African car scam' on Google," he said. "Page after page describing this and other variants of the 4-1-9 scam came up."
He took the check made to him to a bank, where it was recognized it as counterfeit.
"The check was a good fake but not great," Blankenship said. "It had a security pattern on the back but not on the front. They said that if I had tried to cash it I could have been arrested for fraud."
Aware he nearly became a victim, Blankenship told Norman that after he had cashed the check, the car was struck by a garbage truck and crushed by a trash container full of glass bottles. Eventually, the fake buyer lost interest.
"All in all, I didn't lose any money," Blankenship said. "I never asked for any help from any authorities, as I didn't expect them to do much."
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