Computer Crime Research Center


Spam scam or scam spam?

Date: March 30, 2005
Source: Chicago Tribune
By: Guillermo X. Garcia

The e-mail, written in poorly composed English, is deceptively simple: help the widow of a dead Nigerian dictator get possession of $25 million or so in cash and receive a multimillion-dollar commission for "your kindness."

The problem, says FBI agent Dave Rawlins is that those who respond to the offer will never see their windfall.

What they are much more likely to see is their bank account drained by clever international scammers who increasingly target the elderly and others for a fleecing.

Rawlins said federal agencies are detecting junk e-mail pitches to lure people into get-rich-quick schemes.

In visits to retirement and senior citizen centers, the FBI is warning residents of these international scams.

Fewer investigations

The FBI acknowledges that given the focus on homeland security, fewer federal resources and investigations are directed at scammers. The agents say that frequently the con men running the mail or wire fraud schemes are getting away with their crime.

"We are talking about career con artists, who are very good at making you believe something that isn't true -- that your help is needed and that for simply acting as a 'transfer agent' for the funds, you will make millions," Rawlins said. "The victim looks at it as an easy way to make a lot of money, and the con man looks at it exactly the same way."

Now scam artists are using computers to send spam e-mails to tens of thousands of potential victims with the push of a button.

"It does not really matter; they send out 100,000 initial queries, and they may get responses from 25 people, and from those, 10 or 15 will end up sending cash or a moneygram," Rawlins said.

During one 10-day period, one person received four scam letters, including from the Nigerian "widow" as well as from a supposed U.S. military officer in Iraq who was seeking help in moving out millions in gold.

That makes the target feel patriotic, even as he or she knowingly participates in transactions that are at the least dubious, if not illegal, the federal agent notes.

"When you look at the 'offer,' the scammer is basically telling you that the money he is trying to move is essentially illegal, but the scam target should not feel bad about the source of the money, because in exchange for 'helping out' you are going to get millions of dollars as your fee," he said.

As computer hackers and con artists join forces, junk e-mail and phishing attacks -- online scams that lure victims into giving up confidential information -- are far more numerous than legitimate e-mail.

Estimates are that three-quarters of all e-mails in 2004 were spam or fraud-related.

In South Texas, Rawlins said, another scam aims to trap a specific target.

Known as the Canadian 514 lottery scam, that con game is aggressively going after the elderly, Rawlins said.

The scam is simple: A con man, posing as a U.S. Customs inspector based in Seattle, Buffalo or some other U.S. agency office close to the Canadian border, notifies a person that he or she has won the multimillion-dollar Canadian lottery, but the funds have been stopped at the border.

For the "winner" to be able to claim the cash prize, he or she must send money to pay for the "brokerage fee," or "customs duty" or "bank transfer fee." That fee can range from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.

Usually, once the target has sent even a minor amount to the scammer, "the hook is set," just as in fishing, Rawlins said.

What follows is a series of demands for more of the person's money for more fees, bank charges and other phony costs, Rawlins said.

Go for it all

"They are particularly bad, because we've noted that [the people] operating that scam don't stop until the elderly person is totally out of money, their savings account completely drained."

Most victims are too ashamed to come forward, but some who have fallen victim said individuals lost as much as $100,000.

Some of the victims Rawlins has heard from acknowledged they had never bought a lottery ticket in Canada, "so how could they expect to be legitimate winners when they had not even bought a ticket?" the agent said.

"The thing that [victims] had in common is that they were somewhat naive and they were so blinded by greed that they forgot to take a close look at what they were getting into," Rawlins said.

"But it's sad to see someone, especially an elderly person, lose everything like that. It is so unfair."
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