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Email Scams: Still Going Strong
by jeremy   September 22, 2003

As you may have noticed if you read my contributions to this site with any regularity, I lately am living in East Africa. Specifically, I am the programming advisor to a shortwave radio service aimed at encouraging peace and development in a war-torn country in that part of the world. This radio service went on the air in July 2003, so there has been a lot of publicity surrounding the start of the service. In this day of e-mails and media, I see that word travels extremely fast, and now there are tens of thousands of people worldwide who know of our service.

This is good, of course, because that's the point of radio: let people know about the service so they can listen to it. There have been negative consequences, though. As the person whose name is in all the news about this service, I am the recipient of all the questions, comments, suggestions, praise, criticisms, etc.

I am also receiving "reception reports" from a small, almost forgotten tribe of shortwave radio geeks. These are folks who own elaborate shortwave radio sets and love nothing more than sitting in front of their sets, headphones pressed over their ears, listening to radio broadcasts from literally all over the world. In days gone by, shortwave broadcasters relied on these reports in order to monitor, evaluate, and (if necessary) adjust their transmissions to optimize reception. These days, again thanks to e-mail and computers, there exists much speedier and more reliable methods for accomplishing the same things.

Despite this, it's nice to hear from these folks, as it should be when hearing from a listener. Most of these shortwavers (they generally refer to themselves as DXers) don't offer any comment on the content of the broadcasts. They simply let me know they heard our frequency (they often send me tapes or CDs with an excerpt to "prove" they heard us) and they always request something in return -- from a simple letter that's suitable for framing to a pennant or other knickknack.

These shortwave geeks hail from such far-flung places as New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, Montana, and China. It's nice to know we're being heard so far outside our target area (which is in Africa), but it would be nice to hear from more of our primary listeners -- sadly their ability to send e-mails is much more limited (the war has decimated what little infrastructure had existed so many years ago). All the same, we have received some reports from within the country we most want to reach.

In addition to reception reports, though, I am also getting a kind of e-mail that I have heard a lot about, but had never received until this week. To make up for my previous lack, I now have over a dozen of these things.

This type of e-mail is known as the "Nigerian Bank Scam," it originates from a lot of places. The e-mail is part sad story, part get-rich-quick offer, part request for trusted information you shouldn't give anyone, especially over email. I suppose this is the recipe that makes up most confidence tricks, now that I think about it.

The e-mails start by identifying the sender. It's usually a member of the extended family of some deposed third world despot. In the e-mail, the new regime of this third world country is now trying to track down and reclaim some insanely grandiose amount of money that is in the hands of the family member. In an effort to hide the money for a short time, you are told that this person wants to transfer the money to you. You hold the money for just a couple of days until another bank transfer can be arranged. In addition to the interest you can get for holding, say, $30 million dollars in your account (even for just a few days), you will get to keep a certain percentage of the total, usually 20%.

All you have to do is send this person your bank account and routing numbers. So easy, right? Of course wrong!

This scam should raise alarms in the brain of any remotely intelligent person for several reasons.

  1. If this money is now in the hands of someone like Sani Abacha, former dictator of Nigeria, or Charles Taylor, former "president" of Liberia, should one not question the legitimacy of this cash, especially if one is being told that the "new regime" in power is trying to hunt down and recover this money? I mean, if some Swiss bank were to call me and say they'd like to share some millions with me in order to keep it out of the hands of those lousy "Holocaust survivors," should that not give me pause?
  2. Perhaps the most obvious question is, how in the hell did these people get my name and e-mail address? Most of these scam letter writers understand that this question is bound to come up, so most (but not all) of them try to calm any nerves you might have by saying they got your name and e-mail address "through your organization's member profiles on the internet" or "through your church's list of generous donors." In my case, there is no profile of me on any internet site, unless one counts CSP, but these e-mail scams aren't coming to me through CSP, but through my work e-mail. For better or for worse, I am not a generous donor to any church. So you can imagine that these statements don't convince me at all. My favorite, so far, is the lady who told me she got my name and e-mail address "from the Benin Chamber of Commerce." She's obviously hoping to reach the handful of American international businessmen who might happen to be registered with the Chamber of Commerce in that small West African nation, or the people who are so stupid they don't realize the unlikelihood of their being registered with the Benin anything.
  3. The final question, I suppose, has to be: why me? After all, surely these people claiming to be (at least formerly) well-connected individuals have at least one trusted friend or relative living beyond the reach of the authorities with whom they would rather share such outrageous sums of money. Instead they choose a complete stranger? And if the scam was real, what would stop me from just keeping ALL of the money once it's wired into my account?

There are other things that should make anyone capable of exercising any common sense at all immune from falling for such a scam. For instance, don't you think a sudden wire transfer from overseas of tens of millions of dollars into your account would attract the interest of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI, who would probably think you were laundering money for some drug kingpin? And of course there's always the IRS!

The fact that I have received so many of these e-mails in the past couple of weeks makes me think that these scammers are still finding takers. I guess the nice thing about this scam is it costs nothing to perpetrate. A scammer could send out thousands and thousands of these e-mails very quickly and if even one person falls for it (and it seems it's always some little old lady, doesn't it?), it's a good score.

I guess I will end this by asking you all to be diligent and wary of potential scams. Oh, and if you happen to hear the radio service I work on, I'll be hearing from you, right? But don't worry, I'm sure YOU'RE not a geek.

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