Internet fleecing scams thrive in Nigeria
CNN Lagos Bureau
LAGOS, Nigeria (CNN) -- It begins innocently enough. A letter or an e-mail comes addressed to you from a Nigerian claiming to be the son of a former military head of state, and heir to millions of dollars stashed in secret accounts across the world.
They say you're one of the lucky few selected to receive a certain percentage of it. But there's a catch.
Shahla Ghasemi and her husband, a doctor, lost nearly $400,000 after they were contacted by a man posing as a Nigerian government contractor. What made her believe the initial information was that the man knew exactly who the Ghasemis were.
"Someone in Nigeria left the money for your husband in his will. I said if someone doesn't know us, how can he leave the money for us?" she said.
But after a few more questions, Ghasemi was convinced the letter was legitimate. Their share of the money was $27 million dollars, and all they had to do was send a lawyer's fee of $7,500.
The Ghasemis complied. But there were further requests for more money, and close to half a million dollars in transactions later, the Ghasemis were broke.
In letters, phone calls and especially e-mails, con artists pose as sons of former military dictators laying claims to millions of dollars in offshore accounts. Others still say they're chiefs of villages with exclusive access to oil and diamond concessions.
In Nigeria, it's referred to as 419 -- a colloquialism for advance-fee fraud. And just last month alone there were more than 50 arrests in Nigeria.
Internet cafes in Lagos' busy commercial district make it easy for scammers to reach would-be victims with the simple click of a mouse.
The Nigerian police are even setting up a Web site where victims can report these scams, and posters in the city offer rewards for information leading to the arrest of Web scammers and fraudsters.
With the help of Interpol and the U.S. Secret Service, police these days are locating and shutting down local Internet sites used by scammers. They're also pushing for legislation that will lead to the deregistering of banks that accept large cash transfers from dubious sources.
"We are victims of financial terrorism. Other people have to make sure they throw letters from Nigeria into the garbage," Ghasemi said.
Police admit that their fight against 419ers is an uphill battle. The best advice they can offer is that when in doubt, apply the basic rule of thumb: If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
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