Most people with an email address have likely heard of or been targeted by this scam or some variations of it.
A person claiming to be a Nigerian prince tells you that you’re the beneficiary in someone’s will. All you need to do is provide your financial information to prove your identity, and you will receive your sizable inheritance. Or there’s this version: A purported surviving spouse of a Nigerian official tells you their funds are tied up somewhere, and with your bank account information they can pay fees and taxes to get their money — which they will be more than happy to share with you in exchange.
In Louisiana, a man is accused of engaging in such a scam.
Police say 67-year-old Michael Neu, who lives outside New Orleans, served as a middle man in hundreds of fraudulent financial transactions and wired money to co-conspirators in Nigeria. Neu has been charged with 269 counts of wire fraud and money laundering after an 18-month investigation, the Slidell Police Department said Thursday.
Records show Neu is in custody in the St. Tammany Parish Jail. It was not immediately clear if he has an attorney. His brother David Neu did not return a call seeking comment Saturday.
Public records show that Neu held different positions, including vice president and treasurer, for an organization called Blessings of the Spirit Ministries, which is based in Grand Prairie, Tex., near Dallas. State records show the organization was registered with the Texas secretary of state in 1985.
Karl Owen, the ministry’s president, said Michael Neu had not been affiliated with the organization in at least 10 years and that he hadn’t talked to Neu since Neu left Texas to move to Louisiana a decade ago. Still, Owen said, the allegations were not characteristic of the man he had known since childhood.
“If somebody had told Mike 10 or 11 years ago that in 10 or 11 years, he’d be charged with 269 counts of money laundering, I think we both would’ve just laughed,” Owen told The Washington Post. “It’s a sad thing. I really just don’t understand that.”
Owen said he learned about the allegations from Neu’s brother, who called him about a month ago. “David was shocked about finding it out. I don’t think David had any idea,” Owen said. “I know people change over the years. I don’t know exactly how he got involved in something like that.
He added: “It’s not the Mike Neu that we knew when he was living here in Texas. It’s quite a surprise, an unpleasant surprise.”
Owen said he did not have any problems with Neu when he worked for the ministry, which received donations to help the homeless and published a magazine. Neu was hard-working, Owen said, and “very good” with computers.
Investigators have released few details about the investigation other than that it is still ongoing and involves individuals outside the United States. Police did not say what led them to Neu or how he became connected with co-conspirators in Nigeria. Police also did not say exactly how many people were victimized or how much money was involved. A spokesman for the police department did not return a call or an email from The Post.
Slidell Police Chief Randy Fandal said he hopes the arrest serves as a warning to people targeted by such scams. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Never give out personal information over the phone, through email, cash checks for other individuals, or wire large amounts of money to someone you don’t know. 99.9 percent of the time, it’s a scam,” Fandal said in the statement.
Authorities say thousands of people fall for online scams every year — and that the losses to victims have skyrocketed to millions annually.
Nigerian email scams, also known as 419 scams because they violate Section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code, bait people with “convincing sob stories, unfailingly polite language, and promises of a big payoff,” according to the Federal Trade Commission. “Inevitably, emergencies come up, requiring more of your money and delaying the ‘transfer’ of funds to your account. In the end, there aren’t any profits for you, and your money is gone along with the thief who stole it,” the commission said.
According to the FBI, some victims had been lured to Nigeria, where they were extorted and held against their will.
“The Nigerian government is not sympathetic to victims of these schemes, since the victim actually conspires to remove funds from Nigeria in a manner that is contrary to Nigerian law,” the FBI said.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, which monitors Internet scams, has received about 3.7 million complaints since it was created in 2000. It has received an average of 280,000 complaints annually over the past five years. Losses to victims have reached $4.6 billion since 2012.
Victims run the gamut from teenagers to senior citizens. According to the center’s report last year, people in their 30s and those older than 60 each make up about 20 percent of the more than 266,000 reported victims in 2016.