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Worldwide Slump Makes Nigeria's Online Scammers Work That Much Harder

Felix, like four other self-proclaimed scammers interviewed, did not want his full name published for fear of arrest or angering allies. But the swindlers spoke as if conning were an ordinary trade -- one made more cutthroat in challenging times.

Felix and Banjo said they started as college students. Their campus, one state away from Lagos, teemed with young men with fancy cars, designer clothing and beautiful girlfriends -- scammers all.

In the lingo of swindlers, Felix said he went "on the street." He got "tools": formats, or "FMs," for letters; "mailers," or accounts that send e-mails in bulk; and huge lists of e-mail addresses, bought online.

In good months, he said, he has made $30,000, which he blew on clothes, hotel rooms and Dom Perignon at "VVIP" clubs. These days, he lamented, proceeds are down 40 percent.

Chidi Nnamdi Igwe, a professor at the University of Regina in Canada, said jobless young Nigerians got the idea in the 1970s from news reports about corrupt politicians funneling oil proceeds to foreign bank accounts. Scammers began posting letters in the 1980s and later moved to e-mail, said Igwe, author of "Taking Back Nigeria From 419."

Nigerian authorities insist they are tough on 419 perpetrators. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission says the cases made up 45 percent of its prosecutions from 2003 to 2006. Commission spokesman Femi Babafemi said authorities nab scammers in frequent cybercafe raids. The commission also is adopting software that sifts through e-mails sent from Nigeria to block scams, he said.

"These things are giving Nigeria a bad image," said Babafemi, adding that scammers' overseas partners and victims lured by promises of wealth should share blame.

Frank Engelsman, an Ultrascan researcher, said curbing e-mail scams requires better cross-border cooperation among law enforcement. Others say public awareness is the key. But online victim support groups abound. U.S. embassy, bank and money-transfer-agency Web sites display warnings about scams.

Still, people get duped.

"My fiancee is there in Lagos. . . . She is an American . . . she speaks with a heavy African accent after being there for two years," one smitten American wrote to the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, pleading for help. "I have attempted to send her money so that she can leave the country, and both times the guy at Western Union stole the money."

Banjo said his most lucrative swindle is the work-from-home scam, which authorities warn is flourishing as the world sheds jobs. In U.S. newspapers and on the Web, he places ads for "pickup agents" or "correspondents." They print out counterfeit corporate checks -- Honeywell is one company whose checks Banjo said he faked -- at $10 apiece and mail them to other unsuspecting folks.

Those victims then cash the checks and wire the funds to the scammer's accomplice in Britain or South Africa -- places less likely to elicit the sender's suspicion. After taking a cut, that person wires the rest to Banjo. Days later, when the bank deems the check phony, the casher must pay.


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