Fell for That Nigerian E-Mail Scam? See Him

"Nobody's going to send a perfect stranger a great deal of money," warns Tom Polhemus, a financial crimes investigator with the Fairfax County police. (By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

The files stacked up on Tom Polhemus's desk at the Fairfax County Police Department chronicle human gullibility.

A man who was corresponding with a woman on the Internet wired $6,000 to a bank in Nigeria after she sent him a check. The check he received turned out to be counterfeit.

A woman wired more than $11,000 to Canada, supposedly to pay taxes on winnings from a lottery she had never entered and from which she never saw a dime.

A man mailed $45,000 to South Carolina for a luxury French wristwatch he bought online. He got nothing, and his cash wound up in a bank in Russia.

These are among hundreds of frauds reported in recent weeks to Polhemus, a former detective who works as a civilian investigator for the department, and the 12 detectives assigned to track down financial crimes in Fairfax County.

However, local police often cannot do much about fraud originating in another state or country. Even if police could sniff out a suspect and make an arrest, the cost to the county of flying in witnesses to testify would be prohibitive, Polhemus said.

There is one thing he said he could do for victims: "I can commiserate with them," he said.

In the 10 years Polhemus has been investigating financial crimes, he said, fraud has increased dramatically both in raw numbers and in sophistication. An increasing number of cases involve Internet fraud and identity theft. Among the most vulnerable are the elderly and recent immigrants who may not fully understand banking systems and are accustomed to informal transactions in their native countries.

One of the common scams falls in the category of the "advance fee fraud," according to Polhemus. A con artist sends the target a check that is greater than the amount the con says is owed and asks for the difference in cash. The check turns out to be stolen or counterfeit, and eventually the bank notifies its customer that it has bounced. By then, the con artist cannot be found.

In one case Polhemus recounted, a woman in Fairfax County was told she had won a second-place prize of $80,000 in a lottery in Quebec. After she wired the caller $1,200 to pay what she was told were taxes on her winnings, she got another call saying the first-place winner could not be located, so she would receive the winner's money, another $272,000 -- once she wired an additional $1,800 for taxes. She did, and received a third call alerting her that the checks were being held in customs and would be released once she paid an additional $1,200 in duty fees.

"As long as you keep sending money, there's always another call," said Polhemus.

Sometimes the ruses are even more elaborate. A Centreville woman who had advertised for a roommate received an e-mail from a woman in Nigeria who claimed she was moving to the area and would like to rent a room. Her problem, she said, was that she only had the money in postal money orders. So she express-mailed orders totaling $4,000 to Centreville -- $2,000 was for the security deposit, but the woman asked that $2,000 be wired back so she could buy her plane ticket. The Centreville woman complied. The next day the would-be tenant sent another e-mail saying she had been in an accident and would not be coming, after all. The honest landlady then wired back the $2,000 deposit.

Afterward she learned that the money orders she had received were counterfeit, according to Polhemus. That's $4,000 she'll never see again.

Polhemus advises people to use common sense when they are contacted with offers of money.

"Nobody's going to send a perfect stranger a great deal of money," he said. "Legitimate businesses don't ask you to wire money back."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company