WASHINGTON — A letter arrives from a stranger in Lagos, Nigeria. The writer suggests that you can earn up to $8 million risk-free simply for helping to facilitate the electronic transfer of money from a government account in Nigeria to your business's account in the US.
A. Begin making plans for your first appearance on the television program "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"?
B. Send your own money to Lagos to cover initial expenses and taxes related to the proposed deal?
C. Rip up the letter, recognizing that you - like millions of other Americans - have become the target of a scam run by organized criminals from Nigeria?
US law-enforcement officials report that an alarming number of Americans are opting for selections A and B. Recent estimates by the Secret Service claim that letter scams from Nigeria rake in $250 million a year from gullible Americans.
And they aren't the only targets. Similar letter scams have struck 39 other countries.
"This is a global phenomenon," says Jonathan Winer, deputy assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs. "The US embassy in Lagos reports that it is inundated with Nigerian fraud cases."
Sometimes the victims lose more than money. "We are aware of at least two incidents, one in 1991 and a second in 1995, in which Americans who had unknowingly become involved in a fraudulent business deal traveled to Nigeria and were killed after refusing to put more money into the deal," Commerce Department official Sally Miller told a congressional hearing last week.
Promises of gold
The Nigeria letter scams are designed to hook victims by playing on their greed. They lure would-be suckers into the scheme by emphasizing that they stand to make millions of dollars with little or no risk. After more correspondence is exchanged, the victims are told that the deal is close, only to learn at the last minute that red tape has stalled the arrangement. Then the victim is asked to wire money to cover taxes and other unanticipated costs. When the money is sent, the scam is complete.
Law-enforcement officials say it is extremely difficult to identify and arrest the perpetrators because they usually remain in Nigeria masked behind false names. Officials stress that the best defense is public awareness about how the scams operate, and for potential victims to avoid any kind of business relationship with people they do not know well.
It is a lesson that cost Kurt Moylan, an insurance broker on Guam, $1.35 million.
The scam that snared Mr. Moylan began in April 1994. He was contacted by Benjamin Okafor, who falsely identified himself as the accountant general for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., according to federal court documents.
In a letter, Mr. Okafor said that a group of employees at the oil company had amassed $20 million by submitting false invoices for a $50-million construction project that actually cost $30 million. The contract was complete and the workers all paid, the letter said. To avoid arousing suspicion about the remaining $20 million, Okafor said that if he could transfer the money to a foreign account, he could disguise the transfer as an additional payment for the project. (In fact, there was no project and no money.)
"We are civil servants, and we cannot withdraw the money here in our country," the letter says. "We are assuring you that the transaction is risk-free. We will give you 40 percent."
Anticipating the receipt of $8 million, Moylan agreed during a meeting with Okafor in Hong Kong to pay $1.35 million for up-front administrative fees and taxes to speed the transaction.
Follow the money
The scam was uncovered after FBI agents noticed Moylan began to deposit money in an account opened by Nigerian Ihedinachi Uzodinma in Woodbridge, Va. Mr. Uzodinma is the brother-in-law of Okafor, and intended to pass the money on to him.
The account was frozen, and the government eventually seized more than $1.23 million of Moylan's money. But that came after $120,000 had been wired to Okafor's London account.
Moylan was not charged in the scam, but a federal judge ruled that he was not entitled to reclaim the money because of the dishonest nature of the scheme.
Mr. Uzodinma was prosecuted for his role in the scam and sentenced to four years in federal prison and fined $10,000. Okafor remains a fugitive.