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Nigerian con artists find Utah is fertile ground for old scam

At first glance, it looks like a smart, beat-the-government investment and a get-rich gambit that's almost too easy to be true.

But it's a scam by any other name, so here's a word to the wise: Steer clear of mystery mail from Nigeria, painstakingly addressed by hand and tantalizingly adorned with a par avion label.A new wave of exotic letters like these are flooding into Utah - and elsewhere around the United States - as bold con men based in what is perhaps Africa's most corrupt republic continue to dangle tried-and-true bait that has already snagged untold numbers of suckers.

It's so prevalent that since its mercurial rise in the early 1990s, it's acquired its own federally recognized dupe tag - the Nigerian Letter. This is not to be confused with, say, the pigeon drop, the Jamaican Switch or the Spanish Prisoner, all variations on similar games.

Government agencies in recent weeks have been flooded with Nigerian Letter reports from the usual marks: residents of high-priced neighborhoods and small-business owners. The names are gleaned from property-tax roles, Chamber of Commerce listings and other public records. Thus, households in Park City and Midway have gotten the missive of late, as have hundreds of entrepreneurs along the Wasatch Front.

"They think in terms of socioeconomics," said Dennis L. Crandell, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service office in Salt Lake. "They" also hunker down and remain out of reach.

"You can't get them to come out of Lagos (the capital of Nigeria)," and Nigeria's government is - shall we say - less than cooperative in working with U.S. authorities trying to stop the scam, said Crandell, whose agency is deeply involved in the attempt because part of its mandate is to stamp out a host of modern currency-fraud permutations.

Good luck on this one.

The Consumer Rights Division of the Utah Attorney General's Office averages one Nigerian Letter per day forwarded from suspicious constituents, according to Jeff Gray, an assistant attorney general.

Bill Beadle, president of the Better Business Bureau of Utah, said he arrived at his office Monday after a week off and found a stack of 22 of the letters on his desk. The bureau has been receiving four or five a week for the past five years, he said, but the current volume indicates another large-scale effort is under way.

"They've got a two-minute drill going on right now. They're flooding the Utah market," Beadle said. "I don't ever recall receiving this many in one week."

All of the letters Beadle has were turned in by local businesses, he said.

Crandell said he knew of two recent cases of rank-and-file Utahns being nailed by Nigerian Letters, both of them resulting in losses of several thousand dollars apiece.

The ruse works like this: Letters outlining an "urgent business proposal" by Nigerian civil servants (usually with an outfit called the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp.) explain that government overcharges to suppliers or contractors have netted several million dollars in cash surpluses.

Q: What to do with this money?

A: Siphon it quietly into private and distant bank accounts - like yours.

First, of course, the civil servants need your bank account number. Then they need your letterhead and then they expect you to visit Nigeria sometime soon. To make it worth your while, you supposedly get 30 percent of the money in question, which totals $62.5 million in the latest Nigerian Letter.

What the offer doesn't say is that in time you must come up with a good-faith down payment of several thousand dollars. And then you'll have to pay a few thousand more for document preparation or something, and more on top of that for assorted fees and licenses.

If you swallow it hook, line and sinker, you'll also go to Nigeria to consummate the deal, where an extortion or kidnap racket ensues with you as the subject.

The beauty of it is that - situated safely in deepest, darkest Africa - the con sits comfortably beyond the pale of justice. The irony is that victims are the types who should know better.

"These aren't dummies," Crandell said. "They're usually successful people, often people running successful businesses."

Beadle said people who get the letters should either throw them away or pass them on to the bureau, which will give them to the Secret Service.

"They wouldn't continue to approach Utahns if they hadn't been successful in conning people," he said, adding that the whole problem stems from greed.

"If we could eliminate greed from the heart of man, we could eliminate every con game in the world," Beadle said. "Because then people wouldn't respond to something this silly."