IT is not every day that you come home to find in your mailbox an offer to send you $10,650,000 for doing nothing.
Returning from a day in the country two weeks ago, however, I discovered that Chief Raphael Ameachi in Lagos, Nigeria, a stranger to me, was making me just such an offer.
Not only that. Timmy Obi, also of Lagos, Nigeria, had sent me a different letter, but with a similar proposal. He wrote that if I followed his simple instructions, I would receive $6,055,000.
I was not alone. Several other residents of my apartment block had received these letters over the weekend. In fact, several thousand Russians have been getting them lately. "The flow of letters is acquiring a threatening size," says Nikolai Nino, deputy chief of the Russian Interior Ministry's Financial and Credit Crimes Department. "We have been getting more and more reports of them in recent months."
As the Canadian police put it sagely, in advice to Canadians who have been targeted by such fraudulent schemes, "it is helpful to remember the adage 'too good to be true' in these situations."
Trying hard to remember this, and not to think about what I could do with $16,705,000, I examined the letters more carefully. Both were photocopies, printed from a computer in capital letters. Both purported to come from senior officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. (NNPC) who were seeking my help in releasing large sums of money from the Central Bank of Nigeria.
This money had been "overinvoiced" to the NNPC, as they put it, and was just waiting to be collected. But it could only be remitted to a foreign bank account. That was where I came in. If I sent in all my bank details (on company notepaper, signed and preferably stamped with a corporate seal), they would arrange to have the money sent to that account. They would come to collect two-thirds of it, and I would keep the rest.
'All that matters is honesty'
Since both made it plain that this money had been fraudulently obtained from the NNPC, it seemed odd that my main virtue in their eyes - aside from being the holder of a foreign bank account - was my respectability.
"All that matters is your honesty," Dr. Obi assured me. "The assurance given to me of your honesty and versatility in business ... motivated my interest," wrote Chief Ameachi.
Although Obi had flattered me by addressing his letter to "The President" of The Christian Science Monitor, I decided to go for the big bucks and follow up Chief Ameachi's proposal. I sent him a fax, asking what I should do next.
The chief was swift - and blunt. Within a couple of hours, instructions came back by fax. "All we needed from you now is to send to us your banks details immediately," he told me in a hastily hand-written and ungrammatical fax. He also suggested that he wanted to spend his own share of the money "to import goods from your company."
Wow. His share of this loot would buy a year's subscription to the weekly Monitor for every man, woman, and child in the Nigerian capital. This was an opportunity to boost circulation that I could not pass up.
But first I needed to clear up one confusion. The day after I received Chief Ameachi's letter, I received an identical one, but with a different signature. What was going on? I asked the chief. Was somebody trying to trick me?
It was only one of his colleagues, he reassured me, "because I told them I can only use you as our foreign partner and Russia as your base is more favourable."
This, he explained, was because they were afraid that if they transferred the money into an American account, the United States government "may suspect it as drug money."
So I invented a bank. And I made up an account number and the name of its holder, signed my fax with a new name and a new signature to see if anyone would notice (they didn't), and waited.
Four days later, the director of the Foreign Operations Department of the Central Bank of Nigeria (or at least that's who he said he was in his fax) sent me a very official fax full of stamps and seals and "our ref: cbn/tro/christ/vol001/05/03/96" and so on, saying that the NNPC and the Nigerian Finance Ministry had approved a payment of $35,500,000 to me, but that he needed a contractor's certificate from me, and a certificate of my company's incorporation in Nigeria.
Who to turn to for advice in the face of this setback but the trusty chief? Sure enough, he had a suggestion. The suggestion, in fact, that he had been building up to for a week.
The two certificates, he explained, could be procured for only 7,250 ($11,600).
"It is not costly. Bear in mind that this is a third-world country," the chief pointed out. He would put 3,250 of his own money toward that total, he promised.
All that remained for me to do, he explained, was to "send the balance of the money through DHL courier service only to me with my home address."
Suitcase stuffed with cash
Astonishingly, thousands of people around the world have done just that, according to the US Secret Service, losing hundreds of millions of dollars to this sort of scam when no money ever came back to them.
So far, says Mr. Nino of the Russian police, he has not heard of any Russians falling for the trick, although the Nigerian Embassy here stopped one Russian businessman from traveling to Lagos with a suitcase full of money when officials asked him why he needed a visa.
The Russian authorities are planning a publicity blitz to alert newly wealthy Russians who might be tempted by the offer of easy pickings. But in the end, there is not much they can do about greed.
In an ironic way, the fact that Nigerian fraudsters are sending their letters to Moscow is a feather in the cap of Russia's reformers: Now they know that Russia is fully integrated into the world economy.