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West African Advanced Fee Fraud

          Over the past few years, smaller and emerging businesses in the United States as well as the European Union have been increasingly subjected to unsolicited email, FAX, postal and telephone requests generally seeking assistance to transfer a significant sum of money from a West African nation for investment in the US or EU. While these requests appear to be specious and most likely unlawful, they do plead for compassion, sympathy and help because of the alleged political oppression and corruption in the West African "host" nation.

          These presumably ingenuous requests for help are, in fact, the opening shot in a scam commonly known at the "West African" or "4-1-9" advanced fee fraud ("4-1-9" is the pertinent section of the Nigerian Criminal Code); it is also captioned the "Nigerian email fraud." This targeting of unwitting and innocent entrepreneurs globally is becoming a popular "growth industry" with the West African criminal class.

          It is estimated conservatively that this international scam has defrauded hundreds of millions of dollars from its victims. Individual monetary losses have ranged from the low thousands into multi-millions. Many of the crimes are never reported to the authorities because of the victims’ humiliation and embarrassment by their naiveté; thus, hard numbers are obviously obscure. Even more seriously, desperate victims have lost so much that they have then been extorted into becoming "part of the criminal gang" enrolling new victims from their own country of residence. Pathetically, some victims have committed suicide, being unable to confront their losses and shame.

How Does It Work?

          Understandably, inquiries about this fraud to your local police will produce an annoyed yawn, at best. A carefully documented request for assistance to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) yielded an unhelpful rebuff that "we see no evidence of a crime and this is not within our jurisdiction." [Some puzzled recipients have suspected they are the targets of an Abscam entrapment.] However, the Specialist Crime Operational Command Unit (SO6) within the Specialist Operations Department based at New Scotland Yard (Metropolitan Police, U.K.) has taken the initiative in investigating and prosecuting these frauds, and maintains complete and up-to-date information about this fraud on their Website.

          Exhibit A presents a thorough description of the mechanics of this fraud. Three factors seem to have contributed to the "success" of these swindles. First, while the unanticipated request certainly triggers questions, the perpetrators of these crimes have been quite artful and innovative in creating a patina of legitimacy ("It might be true"). Second, the plea for help because of political persecution arouses feelings of compassion, especially for persons who may be economically and racially oppressed ("Perhaps we can help"). And third, of course, the significant monetary sums supposedly involved and the high fees offered for purportedly the "simple" transfer of these funds can pander to one’s avarice ("It’s a lot of money"). The significance of each of these three factors has differed widely among recipients and victims.

          The imagination and creativity of many of the scenarios proffered by the perpetrators may warrant an international literary prize. Happy Face Because of the unusually high stakes and profits, it is believed that many West African government officials have been working with these criminal gangs. Suspects arrested are alleged to be part of an international fraud and drug-dealing cartel. Large amounts of drugs, computer equipment and false identification papers have been seized. There is a concern that significant funds are being funneled into al Qaeda terrorist operations.

          Smaller and emerging businesses maintaining Websites openly identifying principals, postal addresses, email addresses, and telephone and FAX numbers for superior customer service and support appear to be particularly vulnerable targets for this fraud. Reportedly, the majority of the victims have been professional business people, physicians and lawyers. This fraud is truly global; when Fraud Squad officers arrested a suspect who had just defrauded two victims who had traveled to London, one of the victims was from Sitka, Alaska and the other from the outback of Northwest Australia.

          While most scenarios imply that the funds will be transferred to the victim’s bank account by bank cheque or wire transfer, a common variant is where the victim is presented with a suitcase or trunk purportedly full of genuine money (generally US$100 bills). The details of this outrageous and colorful scam are presented in Exhibit B.

          The perpetrators of these crimes demand that the victims meet with them in some foreign locale to complete the transaction and an "official" transfer of the funds can occur. While Lagos, Nigeria, was the initial site, London, Spain and South Africa are currently popular venues. Meeting in an unfamiliar city, the criminals can control the victim, who is usually hesitant to report any problems to a foreign law enforcement authority. Recently, victims traveling to South Africa have been subjected to brutal robberies, violent assaults and, in one case, murder. In the few reported instances where a cheque has actually been delivered on behalf of the "Central Bank of Nigeria" or similar institution after the extraction of further "fees," the cheque proves to be a flagrant forgery.

What to do?

          If you receive a "419" letter or email, the usual advice to persons who have been targeted by these criminals is to simply ignore the requests -- simply "throw them away." Do not reply! However, if one’s identity is of necessity fairly public, you can continue to be bombarded by disruptive email, telephone calls and FAX requests.

          A citizen of the United States can pass on the request or seek further information from their local Secret Service Office in the United States, or from the Secret Service Officer at the US Embassy if in another country. See also: Exhibit C

          A citizen of the United Kingdom can pass on the request or seek further information from the:

Specialist Crime OCU Fraud Squad
Wellington House, 67-73 Buckingham Gate, London, SW1E 6BE
United Kingdom

Telephone: (+44) 020 7230 1220



And further information can be obtained from:

The West African Organised Crime Section
National Criminal Intelligence Service

Telephone: (+44) 020 7238 8012
FAX: (+44) 020 7238 8306


Exhibit A
Exhibit B
Exhibit C

Your comments and suggestions for these pages are most welcomed!

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Thomas A. Faulhaber, Editor

Telephone: 617.232.6596 -- FAX: 617.232.6674

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Revised: June 1, 2002 TAF

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