Those who regularly receive scam e-mails from Africa have seen the swindle undergo a facelift lately.
In the past, almost all of these bogus propositions arrived with "Urgent Reply" or "Confidential" subject lines. They were sent, supposedly, by Nigerian government employees or widows of assassinated African leaders, typically with names like Princess Rose Ike or Boma Ngobo or Musa Bello.
The standard "Nigerian scam" asked your help to transfer millions of dollars out of the sender's country. All the sender wanted was your bank account details and, in return, you were to get a hefty percentage of the treasure. Of course all the victims got were unauthorized withdrawals from their accounts or a bilking through payments of phony transfer taxes or bonds.
But recently, instead of using exotic names that most e-mail readers have learned to delete on sight, many of these grifters switched to less conspicuous aliases -- names such as Dr. Peter Newton, Dr. Mike Moses and David Pearse. The subject lines have also changed to something sophisticated -- "Investment Opportunity" or "Business Proposal." Even the scripts vary now -- some pleas are linked to news headlines.
Rockville reader Irwin Schorr noticed one recently from a "Stanley Woodwork." He claimed to be the secretary of a group of white Zimbabwean farmers who have been driven from their property by the government and now wanted to sneak their wealth out of the country.
Howard Griffiths, managing director of Griffiths and Associates, a security management firm in Johannesburg investigating cases in South Africa, says: "The crooks have realized that more people are waking up to the fact that the fraud letters with Nigerian origin addresses are becoming less credible."
Griffiths says South Africa's poor border patrols, burgeoning illegal immigrant population and high-tech infrastructure provide an inviting new base for scammers. Some recent scams have even included cellular telephone numbers. "You can talk directly to them instead of having to reply to an anonymous e-mail account," he says.
Agent Marc Connolly, spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service, the lead federal agency investigating such e-mail scams, says the illegal scheme has expanded. "The vast majority still originate from Nigeria," he says, "but we've seen a large number originate in neighboring African countries, South Africa, European countries and the former Soviet Union. And we've seen participants further the scam here in the United States."
Another new twist, says Connolly, is wrapping the pitch around current events: "We've seen them tied to the military action in Afghanistan, where someone in the Special Forces has come into possession of a large amount of terrorist funds, and we've seen them connected to the events of September 11."
But while the names, subject lines and scripts may be changing, the fraudulent core of the scheme remains consistent with its beginnings as a mailed-letter scam in the mid-'80s. "For doing fairly little," Connolly describes the message, "you will be rewarded significantly."
And it works. American victims range from the elderly to accountants, doctors, lawyers and corporate executives, he says. "Unfortunately there is a small percentage of people who feel that the offer is so large for doing what appears to be something so small that it's too much of a temptation to resist."
The conservative estimate: Such scams reap $100 million a year in the United States, he says.
"We've had many cases where the victims have been unwilling to allow us to intervene because they cling to the mistaken belief that ultimately the transaction will be completed."
Got a consumer complaint? Question? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.