Those of you who are regular recipients of the African scam e-mails would probably wonder why I am writing about a confidence trick that is nearly a decade old and has merely switched from snail mail to e-mail.
I have several good reasons. First, because every so often, a new recipient forwards me the e-mail asking me to 'expose' the scam. Second, because greed and curiosity are such basic human emotions that people continue to be lured by the e-mails.
And third, because I recently heard a horror story (unconfirmed by me) about an Indian businessman who landed up in an African jail for several months until his family bought his way out of jail.
Let me tell you how it works. Those who use the Net regularly often receive e-mail, from a seemingly influential person in one of the African countries (Nigeria, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Lome, Togo, South Africa, Congo, Swaziland, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Angola, Lagos, Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire, Benin, Zaire) or lately even Yugoslavia and Taiwan.
The mail offers a patently corrupt proposition -- to move a hoard of money (usually a few hundred million dollars) from banks in Europe, through your bank account on to some unknown safe' destinations.
In return, you are offered a hefty cut for your 'kindness' and 'trouble.'
For example, recent e-mails doing the rounds are allegedly sent by the wife/son of Jonas Savimbi. The one I received says: "I am Mr K.S.Savimbi, son of the late rebel leader Jonas Savimbi of Angola who was killed on the 22nd of February 2002. I managed to get your contact details through the Internet myself. Time is of the importance and I am desperately looking for a person to assist me in this confidential business.
"My late father, Jonas Savimbi was able to deposit a large sum of money in different banks in Europe. My father is presently dead, and the movement of his family members (including me) is restricted. We are forbidden to either travel abroad or out of our localities.
"Presently our movements are monitored. Right now there is a rush for all my father's wealth, both, home and abroad by the government who are claiming that most of the wealth was got by arms smuggling and therefore illegal and by my father's extended family and relations."
The e-mail invites you to check out details about the father on the Net, and estimates his wealth in European banks at $500 million to $1 billion.
It further says: "I am therefore soliciting your help to travel to Europe to receive this money and transfer into your/an account (for us all) before my government get wind of this fund."
He promises a hefty fee for transferring part of the money to your account and on to him.
The transaction is obviously illegal. A corrupt, deceased leader, who allegedly amassed half a billion dollars in European banks and his equally shady son want help to transfer the booty and offer you a percentage. If the morality of the deal doesn't bother you, it seems like easy money.
There are several variations to this general theme.
An Internet search reveals that Web sites such as www.truthorfiction.com or http://www.bizeurope.com have scam alerts that list many of such letters.
In the past, I have received, among others, letters from people claiming to be -- the widow of the late general Sanni Abacha who allegedly had $35 million abroad, a farmer from Zimbabwe who had $ 15 million in his servants' name, the widow of the Yugoslav health minister who wants to access $12 million salted abroad by the husband, and the son of the late President of Zaire.
There are at least 150 such letters floating around the world and new ones are added to the list almost everyday.
At one point, the Nigerian scam got so bad that the Nigerian Central Bank finally issued a warning to people saying "if it looks too good to be true, it usually is."
The US secret service and the British National Criminal Intelligence Service are also collecting information on the scam and have issued similar warnings.
What is more pertinent to recipients are the consequences of responding to such e-mail.
The formula is simple: The fact that you respond to a crooked scheme is usually an indication that you are greedy, gullible and probably corrupt. So, they are out to outsmart you and get whatever you are willing to cough up.
According to the US secret service warning, a response to the e-mail leads to a lengthy correspondence that makes it obvious that the promised power-of-attorney to multimillion dollar European accounts, or the transfer of funds to your bank account, is not going to be such a cakewalk.
The scamsters first present you with official looking documents, identification and credentials to establish their so-called bonafides.
They then ask for details about you for similar documentation and even blank letterheads and business details.
Depending on your response, they seek money from you to bribe government officials, to grease the transfer of money, or legal expenses/advance fees. Their demands depend on how much they think you would cough up.
Another variation is to lure you to their country on the pretext of a personal meeting remember their claim that their government won't let them out of their country?
It is at this stage that people have found themselves locked up in a filthy prison and having to bribe their way out.
The scamsters vanish as soon as you seem unwilling to part with more money or have landed in jail. And since you agreed to be party to a corrupt deal in the first place, you can hardly complain to the authorities.
If you think that nobody would respond to such an obvious scam, then think again. Among those who were lured, trapped and caught by the scam, include a priest who used church collections to pay advance fees to the scamsters.
He even borrowed money for a church project hoping to return it when he hit the jackpot in scam commissions. Instead, he landed in jail.
Also, so many versions of the scam mail would not be in circulation unless they routinely trapped new suckers. Even as I write this, a new country seems to have joined the list. This time it is Eric Jones of Mauritius, who calls himself chairman of a contract award and monitoring committee of the ministry of industry and international trade development.
He coolly claims to have stashed away $21.8 million in the form of 'commissions' (read bribes) from contractors, through 'over-invoicing' projects meant for 'assistance to deprived communities.'
He even claims to be able to move the money to Europe through diplomatic channels using a 'decoy.' All he needs is a beneficiary claimant to collect the funds because he cannot operate a foreign bank account.
Maybe this is a little to naïve for Indian scamsters. After all, most businessmen in India know that Swiss bankers, send their personal banking officials right here to India, in order to help out scamsters open accounts in the comfort of five-star hotels or their own homes.But you never know, maybe Eric Jonas, or whoever he is, will find a sucker who buys his story.