Anatomy of a 419 scam

I've just had my first direct involvement with a victim of a 419 advance fee scam.

Sure, I know these things happen, and that people fall for them, but reading about it in the paper is not the same as trying to help someone figure out what they've gotten into - and realising it's a fraud.

I was asked to get involved by an online acquaintance who knows I'm a Londoner. Her sister had an Internet boyfriend, also in London, who earlier this year had got her involved in something financial, and the family were worried - but they're not Internet (or fraud) experts so they couldn't convince her.

The story I heard second-hand stank of fraud, and I told my friend so. I researched the few details she passed on, such as the name and address of the bank involved, and they were all wrong. Eventually, the sister agreed to chat to me directly.

As soon as I looked at the stuff she forwarded to me, it was blatantly obvious: the tale of a banked inheritance that needed claiming by a "relative", the bank with the misspelled name, the letter from the Bank of England, requesting money to cover death duties and sent via a Yahoo account... Yet, just because it was obvious to me - a Londoner - why would it be obvious to someone on the other side of the world?

Because the lady who'd been conned was in Manila. An Internet novice, like most of the billions out there, her "English boyfriend" had persuaded her to help him claim an inheritance. Surprise surprise, before the money could be released, there were fees and taxes to pay.

In some ways, it was fairly well done. The fraudsters had even set up a fake online banking site, encouraging the victim to log in and supposedly see her account with the money transferred to it.

Yet in others it was all too easy to detect as a fraud, and researching it turned up some useful sites - Artists Against 419 for example, which not only lists the fake banking site, but also its address - on an entry relating to another fake bank. The phone number quoted by the "bank manager" was a follow-me 070 type - I recognised it as such straight away, and knew a real bank manager wouldn't use such a thing, but someone overseas wouldn't know that.

To cap it all, when I looked up the bank account that she'd paid into, it appeared to be in Lagos. Duh.

The cruelty of it offended me - befriending someone vulnerable (and yes, far too naïve), and then defrauding them.

And yet, the insulating effects of distance and the Internet make cruelty of all sorts so much easier. You don't even if have to face the mark you're robbing, for instance - you might have to talk to them on the phone, but that's relatively trivial for a conman, I guess.

Plus, the Internet means you can quite easily con several at the same time, where in the old days the "in-person" conman would have had to spend a fair bit of time on each victim. And with growing prosperity around the world, more people in more countries are worth conning.

One of saddest things about it all - apart from her naïvete - was how hurt the victim was by what to her was a betrayal of trust. I've encouraged her to report the fraud, especially now the Met lets you report crime online, and because we know the account she paid her money into, but I fear she'll be too embarrassed to do it. Apparently, that's quite a common reaction.

Any (practical!) ideas on how to stop this kind of thing?

This story, "Anatomy of a 419 scam" was originally published by


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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