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The 419 scam rolls on

By John Naughton

LONDON, JULY 18. An e-mail arrives from someone you have never heard of. This person claims to have custody of a large number of dollars lodged in an account in some godforsaken country. Colourful accounts of how he (or sometimes she) came to be responsible for so much dosh are appended.

Your correspondent, however, has a problem. He wishes to deposit the money in another country — generally yours — because of the repressive regulations of his native land. This is where you come in. If you will give him details of your bank account, then he will transfer the cash into it. You will receive a handsome commission — up to half the total, in some cases, for your trouble. This is the "419'' scam, called so because it originated in Nigeria and contravenes Article 419 of that country's penal code.

In the last few years, it has become a multinational cottage industry. One sometimes has the feeling that every Internet cafe in certain parts of the world is occupied by fraudsters churning out variations on the 419 theme. The most common variant requires you to open an account to receive the massive infusion of cash. But of course in order to open the account, it is necessary to deposit a certain sum of money.

This writer still receives at least two 419 e-mails a week, many of them now originating from places other than Africa. The vast majority are so riddled with execrable grammar, spelling and punctuation that it seems inconceivable that anyone would be taken in by them. Yet people are apparently conned. There was a case some time ago of a woman working in a U.S. law firm who siphoned off its funds in order to open a 419 account that would lead to the promised riches. But this only came to light because she was prosecuted in the U.S. for embezzlement. Most successful 419 scams probably go unreported as victims feel too embarrassed to confess to such boundless gullibility.

All of which makes an investigation by the Register, an online technology news service, so striking. In "Anatomy of a 419 Scam'', published on July 9, the Register gives a detailed, e-mail-by-e-mail account of how a U.S. citizen was suckered out of $1,000.The result is a riveting account of how an American (identified as DG) lost $1,000 to a British-based outfit that used a combination of plausible correspondence, phone calls and a fake website to reel in its victim. On June 22, DG transferred $1,000 to an unknown location in Britain, believing it would be used to set up an account with United Mercantile Credit & Investment Bank (UMCIB) in London into which $8 million would then be transferred. The $8 million allegedly came from one Moser Gilmore, who had died intestate and left the cash in a European bank. The 419ers initially contacted DG purporting to be investigators looking for Gilmore's relatives - a classic ploy, according to the Register. A "bank official'' asked him to pose as Moser's next of kin. The money would then be transferred to DG and he and the official would split the proceeds.

DG took the bait. But it turned out that UMCIB required an initial deposit of $8,000 to activate his account. DG could not himself raise that much but duly parted with $1,000. Shortly thereafter, he received confirmation from one James Cole, his personal "realtionship manager'' at UMCIB, that the $8 million was in his account. All he now had to do was access it. But DG was unable to log on to UMCIB's e-banking system. This was of course because UMCIB is non-existent. Its website gave 232 Great Eastern Street, London EC2 as its address. Non-existent, again. — Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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