According to Brian Ross, ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent, this e-mail scam—and others just like it—are so seductive that many victims end up losing their life savings or going to prison.
During a three-month 20/20 investigation, Brian uncovered thousands of cons on the Internet, which he says is home to the greatest collection of scam artists ever. These computer-savvy criminals are logging on in Internet cafes around the world. For one story, Brian set his sights on e-mail scams originating in Nigeria, a West African nation that has been plagued by government corruption for decades.
Brian says many times scammers ask their "mark" to send money to them in order to help someone in need—or help them transfer huge sums of money. They promise that if the money comes through, the donor will receive a huge return on his or her investment. "They'll say, 'Here's $15,000. Send me $4,000. You keep the $11,000,'" Brian says. "People think, 'This is pretty good.'"
Unfortunately, the payout usually comes in the form of a counterfeit check...or never comes at all.
Postal inspector Steve Korinko says scammers use American phone books and special computer programs that pull up e-mail addresses to find their next victims. Of the millions of Americans they target, Steve says about 1 percent of people fall for it, which is enough to keep them in business.
Brian says very intelligent and well-educated people have fallen for these scams. Some are motivated by greed, while others are truly trying to help those in need. "A lot of the victims have been Christian ministers," Brian says. "They're told, 'There's $30 million [in Nigeria] we want to give to help small churches across the country. Just give us some money to [help transport] it out of Nigeria.'"
Many of the cons lure people in by stealing the names and photos of real people. One e-mail Brian came across claimed to be from an American soldier in Iraq who found Saddam Hussein's hidden fortune. All the recipient had to do to share in the wealth was pay the fee required to transport the funds.
There he learns that scammers are known as "419 men," which refers to the section of Nigerian criminal code that makes it illegal to obtain money under false pretenses. "Until very recently, it was a law that was almost never enforced," Brian says. "Police here say at any given time, there are thousands of 419 men online at small Internet cafes trying to scam Americans."
Local investigators help Brian infiltrate a cafe, where they catch con men in the act. One of the men they arrest is in the middle of trying to cheat an American woman who had just sent him her photo and bank account number. Brian says Americans are the primary targets of these scams because scammers see them as "mugus"—which means "big, gullible fools."
Brian says one of the reasons Nigeria is a source of so many scams is because a large number of citizens are living below the poverty level. "This is a desperately poor country with wonderful people who are very intelligent, a good school system [but] no jobs," Brian says. "It's [also] a corrupt country where the leaders have been corrupt for years. They've doomed their people to a life of poverty, and the lesson has been taught that you can get away with crimes and nothing happens."
For years, Nigerian con men got away with their crimes and made small fortunes...but not anymore. Pressure from the United States and Great Britain has prompted the government to start cracking down. The men caught during Brian's investigation are facing criminal charges.
Patricia was working at an ad agency when she responded to a fax. It was a desperate plea for help from a wealthy Nigerian businessman. "He had supposedly been in a logging truck accident, and needed to the United States for some reconstructive surgery," Patricia says.
The man told her that before he could travel, he needed the use of someone's bank account to transfer funds from Nigeria to the United States. Patricia called Nigeria and was told that in exchange for her help, she would be financially rewarded. "Part of me was willing to sacrifice some of my money for the opportunity to perhaps doubling it, maybe even tripling it," she says.
The story also appealed to Patricia's compassionate side. "He sounded so sincere, so desperate for help," she says. "[He said] he was in great pain."
Once Patricia agreed to help, the man asked her to wire him $10,000 to cover his international banking fees. She sent it, but the requests for money continued. Before she knew it, she had emptied her checking account and maxed out all her credit cards.
When communication abruptly stopped, Patricia says she went online and did a search for the bank that she wired money to. Instead of finding an address, her search results revealed that she had fallen victim to a common scam. "I just froze," she says.
Years later, Patricia says she's still being targeted by scam artists. "They will go after every last dollar you have," Brian tells her.
Now, there's a new con out there that targets people just like Patricia, Brian says. Con men are sending out letters that appear to be from an official government bureau in Nigeria that's been set up to compensate scam victims and make amends for past scams. "[They say], 'Just send us $4,000, and we'll send you a million dollars because we want to make our victims whole again,'" he says. "They know these people are gullible, and again and again the people will send off the $4,000 to get the million."
Brian says any time someone needs money to send you money or mails you an unsolicited check, you should be suspicious. Most times, these counterfeit checks look so real—thanks to high-tech computer graphics—even banks will cash them.
When she was offered the position, she accepted, hoping the extra cash would help her catch up on a few bills.
"I thought the company was very professional," she says. They asked her to fill out employment forms and set up a PayPal account to receive compensation for her work, which she says was pretty easy.
All Shannon had to do was receive boxes in the mail, repackage the contents and ship them overseas to Russia. Most packages contained items like digital cameras and clothing, she says.
After a few weeks on the job and a supposed payment totaling $845, Shannon got a knock on the door—and the surprise of her life.
Then, they asked Shannon to participate in the investigation by continuing to receive packages but to end all communication with the "mail-forwarding company" that hired her. After receiving several more boxes, the agents had Shannon e-mail the company to say that their packages had been confiscated. "Of course, the packages stopped [coming]," she says.
Twenty days later, Shannon's PayPal payment was revoked. "Apparently they used somebody else's credit card and paid me with that," she says.
Currently, no arrests have been made. Shannon says the Secret Service told her they couldn't do much since the scammers were overseas.
Sid says she's also lucky she didn't give the scammers her bank account information. "Once they have that, you don't get any money, but they take what's in your account," he says.
Work-at-home scams are some of the most popular cons these days, according to Sid. They can either be reshipping scams—which is what Shannon fell for—or check-processing scams.
In the second scenario, con artists create an overseas company. Then, they mail unsuspecting Americans big packets of checks—usually in amounts under $5,000 to avoid raising the ire of banks—and ask them to deposit the checks into their accounts and wire them the money, Sid says.
"It takes the banks about two weeks to authenticate these checks. After you make that wire, the money you've sent is gone," he says. "The checks come back. They bounce. [And] you're held liable, and you could be arrested for counterfeiting charges."
The letter said Christina had just three weeks to claim her $50,000—all she had to do was pay the taxes, and the remainder of her winnings would be sent to her. Three days later, Christina received two checks in the mail for a total of a little less than $8,000. "[One was for] federal fees and one was for state fees," she says.
Because she was skeptical, Christina says she did some legwork to try to make sure the checks were legitimate. She called the Better Business Bureau and learned that a company referenced in the documents—a firm that deals with unclaimed funds—was an actual business. Christina says she tried to verify the checks' authenticity by calling the phone number written on them and pretending to be a bank official who wanted to confirm the routing and account numbers. The person who answered the phone said the information was correct. Christina also had a friend look on the Internet to check the bank's address.
After doing everything she could think of to find out if the checks were genuine, Christina finally went to the bank. She says the bank cashed the checks for her right away—no questions asked—and the people there even congratulated her. "They put the money in my hands. I was like, 'I really actually truly did win the lottery,'" Christina says.
So, Christina took another trip to the bank to cash the third check, but there was a problem. "[The bank] said, 'Oh no, the first check came back. It's counterfeit,'" Christina says. "I thought I did my homework. I thought I was very thorough, and they said I'm responsible for the money."
Instead of reaping $50,000 in lottery winnings, Christina ended up being scammed out of nearly $8,000—even though she says she tried to protect herself. "She did all the right things. The fact of the matter is that these are professional con men who do this," Sid says.
He says the fact that the scammers asked Christina—who lives in Alabama—to mail her supposed tax money to New York is another hint that something is wrong. "When you pay your taxes, you're paying it to the regional office, probably in Atlanta," Sid says.
Even the phone number that Christina called to verify the check's authenticity—which she found on the check itself—is part of the scam, according to Sid. "These scams operate on a sense of urgency. It's like, 'You won $1 million. How come you haven't claimed your prize yet? Time's running out! Here is the number to call.' It's a boiler room. She dials a toll-free number. It could be set up anywhere," Sid says.
Christina's bank cashed the checks so quickly, Sid says, because federal mandates require that banks make the funds available within one to five days. But that does not necessarily mean that the bank had actually gotten any money. "You have to hear that the funds have been collected. That will take two weeks. That means the ... bank has gotten those funds from the check issuer," Sid says.
Julia says she and Scott made an immediate connection. After a month of daily e-mails and instant messaging, Julia says they began to fall in love. When Julia discovered she had skin cancer and had to have surgery, Scott was supportive and loving, even from 5,000 miles away. Julia was thrilled when Scott proposed a few weeks later. "He said, okay, so shop for your dress. Money is no object. As soon as I get there, we're going to be married," Julia says. "I felt like Cinderella."
After sending him money to help support his orphanage, Scott asked Julia to put on a white dress and meet him at the airport. She waited for six hours, and her Prince Charming never showed up. "My heart was broken. I was devastated," she says.
Each month, thousands of people—men and women—get caught in similar traps, Sid says, and the scammers know how to work their victims. "From the outside you may say, 'How did she fall for that?' But you heard Julia. She was being wooed every day—e-mails before work, after work. [She] probably expressed that she liked children. He has an orphanage," Sid says.
Sid says the scam artists often pose as rich American or British businessmen living overseas who charm their victims, gain their trust and then have some sort of financial need—often money for surgery or passport cash to fly to the United States and get married. He says the con artists claim to be paid in U.S. postal money orders and ask the victims to cash them and wire over the cash. "Once you send the money, you don't hear from them. Or they're brazen enough to actually call you and say, 'I scammed you,'" Sid says.
Julia says the victims can be any age, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, and scam artists target them in many different venues—from dating websites to gaming chat rooms. According to Sid, the FBI estimates that about half the victims of these kinds of scams are male. They are oftentimes conned by men posing as female Russian models.
When the auction ended, Blakely realized she had failed to meet the minimum sale price and lost the dress. But later that day she got an e-mail from someone offering to sell her the dress at the price she had bid. "I was just ecstatic. I just couldn't believe it. I just wanted to get the dress in my hands. It was a dream come true," Blakely says. Although Blakely had a PayPal account, the person who contacted her claimed his own account had been hacked, so he asked Blakely to wire him the money instead.
Sid says many people are conned on auction sites in the same way as Blakely. "Once you leave the confines of eBay, you're kind of on your own," he says.
Rob Chestnut, who heads up eBay's fraud unit, says that's exactly what users should avoid. "Our security teams are working to keep the site itself safe, so the first thing [scammers] want to do is try to drag you away from the secure environment and get you off where they can communicate directly with you," Rob says.
Get eBay's top five online safety tips.
Although Blakely paid a con artist for a dress she never received, her story does have a happy ending. "Monique Lhuillier heard my story, and because they believe in happy endings at Monique, they sent me the dress," Blakely says.
"It's always an urgent call to action [such as], 'We've lost your information,' or 'We regret to inform you your account needs to be updated and you'll be suspended if you don't act.' That's a sense of urgency, and they always want you to click on a link in the e-mail," Rob says.
Rob says that eBay and PayPal will never send you an e-mail asking for a password, personal information or an account update. "Most responsible companies won't do that. You don't communicate securely by e-mail because of these sorts of risks," Rob says. If a company does need to contact you for some reason, Rob says, it will get to you when you sign onto its own website.
"The key to remember in these sorts of situations [is] treat e-mails like strangers," Rob says. "Just as you wouldn't give this kind of information to a stranger who knocked on your door, look at an e-mail like this." He says if you do get a suspicious e-mail, do not click on any links and delete the message.
- Be suspicious of any e-mail that comes from a company but has a Yahoo or a Hotmail address, instead of the company's address.
- Be suspicious of correspondence asking you for money.
- If you take a check to the bank, make sure you wait until the bank hears that the funds have been collected. Do not just let them tell you the check has cleared.
"I know we're going to get a letter from somebody saying that Nigeria has a lot of wonderful people. You don't have to send the letter," Oprah says. "We already know that. We're just talking about this particular scam that's going on. We're not talking about the entire country and everybody in the country."