2005-02-04 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer


Audrey Pheffer
Audrey Pheffer If you have heard it once, you have heard it a thousand times: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Advance fee fraud is a perfect example. Fund transfer scams of this nature are often known as “Nigerian advance fee fraud” or “4-1-9 fraud” since the scam is said to have originated in Nigeria, but very similar scams have also originated in other countries. This scheme has always been popular, but according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it has now reached epidemic proportions and defrauded numerous people out of millions of dollars.

Advance fee fraud is conducted almost entirely by mail, beginning with an unsolicited letter, usually from a foreign country. Con artists often pose as Nigerian officials or officials from the letter’s country of origin, senior civil servants, businessmen, or surviving spouses of government officials and distribute unsolicited letters offering to transfer large sums of money into your bank account for a nominal fee. These letters tend to be very reassuring in order to convince victims of their authenticity; they also emphasize the confidential and clandestine nature of the agreement. They will promise you a considerable share of the money for your assistance and cooperation. Often the fraudsters claim that they received the money from over-invoiced contracts, wills, real estate ventures, or crude oil sales. If you chose to respond to the initial offer, you will probably receive “official” looking documents, often complete with stamps, seals, and letterhead. Generally, you will then be asked to provide your account numbers and bank letterhead, as well as money to cover attorney’s fees, transfer and transaction costs, and taxes.

If correspondence continues, it is likely that you will be given numerous reasons that the final fund transfer cannot take place. These reasons may include various problems such as unforeseen charges, additional fees, taxes, and costs, and even bribery or discovery by a third party. All of these would require more money from you. One problem often arises as another is fixed, allowing the scam to continue for months.

Eventually, the fraudster may request that you visit Nigeria, the letter’s country of origin, or a border country to complete the transaction. According to State Department records, people who have responded to these offers have been subjected to physical abuse, threats, and extortion. In 1995, an American was murdered in Nigeria while pursuing a similar scam, and several foreign nationals have been reported missing according to the United States Secret Service.

If you receive a similar offer and are tempted to respond, ask yourself why a complete stranger would approach and trust you with such an important, confidential, and lucrative deal. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In order to protect yourself from this scam and from other similar scams, never give anyone your banking information or your social security number unless you are absolutely certain who is receiving your information, how it will be used, and why it is needed.

If you receive an email from a foreign country requesting financial assistance, forward it to the FTC at spam @uce.gov. If you have been a victim of this scam or a similar fraud scheme, contact your local Secret Service office. The Blue Pages of your local telephone directory list local field offices. You can also visit www.secretser vice.gov for contact information.

To learn more about Nigerian Advance Fee scams, visit the U.S. Secret Service’s website athttp://www.secretservice.gov/alert 419.shtml or the Department of Justice’s website at http:// www.justiceonline.org/consum/nigerian.html.

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