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Just Deposit $28 Million

mail fraud
Christopher Gardner

Just the Fax: Steve Caraway of Dean Markley holds up faxes sent by bogus "Nigerian officials" offering big bucks for help laundering $40 million.

Nigeria's fraud industry is the Publishers Clearinghouse of faxed get-rich-quick scams

By Richard Sine

BARI WILSON, vice president of Dean Markley Strings, says the company's troubles started when a customer from Nigeria ordered a boggling $40,000 worth of guitar strings, more orders than the company normally receives in a month. It turned out the check was from a nonexistent bank. Then, a few months later, arrived a series of letters presenting a scheme worthy of John Le Carré: Top officials in Nigeria's national oil company had skimmed $28 million off a foreign contract to build an oil refinery. If Dean Markley Strings opened up an account in which the Nigerians could stash the cash, they could expect a hefty kickback.

Wilson says she doesn't know why the company, which supplies steel gauge for U2, Neil Young, R.E.M. and the like, was targeted by these inquiries. She says she never showed any interest in the scheme. Nonetheless, one gentleman started calling twice a day to demand "advance fees" before the money would be deposited. The calls ended only when Wilson threatened to call the cops.

The letters started again this year. Earlier this month, Wilson faxed them to the company's lawyer, asking him how she could "put an end to this," once and for all. But due to a one-digit dialing error, the letters ended up at Metro's offices instead.

The lawyer, Jesse Jack, says that when he gets the letters he'll turn them over to the U.S. Attorney General's office. Jack says Dean Markley is not his first client to be tapped for the scam.

THE NIGERIAN BANK-account scheme is so widespread in Santa Clara County that authorities here tend to greet it with a nod and a chuckle. "I used to have one of the letters on my wall," says Al Binder, deputy district attorney for consumer protection. Detective Jim Wagner of the San Jose Police Department says his fraud unit gets at least one call a week from businesspeople curious about the letters they get in the mail or over the fax. "We've seen it hit just about every kind of business," Wagner says, "though not the bigger ones. We tell them not to participate, because once you show some interest, they'll pursue you."

The fraud unit doesn't have the manpower to research who is sending the letters, Wagner says. The letters to Dean Markley were postmarked from Nigeria, but Wagner says that many of the letters he sees are faxed from what appear to be local copy shops.

The Nigerian scheme poses an array of difficulties for American investigators. As in the infamous pigeon-drop scam, the victims are reluctant to admit that they knowingly bought into an illegal scheme, even though American authorities usually won't prosecute them. "If you get somebody hooked into it, they are also participating in the scam," says Njall Hardarson, an Icelandic businessman who says he has talked to hundreds of scam victims worldwide. "So you can't complain if you get hooked."

When Hardarson first started collecting victims' stories several years ago, he started handing over the names and numbers of possible perpetrators to Nigerian authorities. But he soon learned that the Nigerian government had no real interest in following his leads. Like many other observers of the scam, Henderer now believes that some Nigerian government officials are involved.

And as long as that is the case, American authorities--including the Department of Justice, the Postal Inspector and the Secret Service--say that the best strategy for stopping the scammers is through educating potential victims.

TYPICALLY, THE scam begins with a letter from a self-proclaimed official of the Nigerian oil company or even the Central Bank of Nigeria asking for a bank account number. The scammers usually don't directly plunder from the bank account. Instead, they entice victims into what is known as "advance fee fraud." Before they can deposit money into the account, they say they require an attorney fee, a "transfer fee," or some kind of tax.

The advance fee fraud is only one of many scams operated out of Nigeria, where most citizens live in poverty and multinational oil companies cooperate with a military junta. U.S. diplomats have been quoted as saying that fraud is Nigeria's third-largest industry. Bolaji Ojo, a reporter for Asia, Inc., discovered a wealthy suburb of Lagos where the scam was the main profession. The small-time con artists operate out of "business centers" where they pay $40 a year to use faxes, copiers and phone lines. A top letter-scam artist, Fred Ajudua, is a "darling of the Lagos jet set" and buddy to many top military officials and police officers, Ojo says. He was never sent to jail despite the court testimony of a Canadian victim who lost $285,000 to him.

In the later stages of the biggest scams, the victims end up flying to Lagos to "finalize" the deal. The scammers wine and dine them and hold conferences in borrowed Nigerian government ministry offices. But if no money is forthcoming, the deal can turn sour. "Frequently, [such persons] have been threatened or assaulted," says a State Department pamphlet. "In a few cases, scam victims have been killed."

Scam stories hold out the promise of excitement and suspense. Successful Nigerian fraudsters are very rich and their scams impressively elaborate. But the small-time Nigerian scammer appears woefully inept, perhaps a reflection of the con artists' rather desperate situation. They scatter-shoot their letters to an enormous number of businesses --via fax machine, mostly--and rarely get a hit.

This year, Dean Markley Strings has received three different letters, apparently from three different parties. Every word in these letters is capitalized. The diction is stilted, reflecting a flailing attempt at business formality ("Please treat urgently, with despatch confidence as a personal consumption while I look forward with optimism"). Each mentions a different sum to be deposited into the account. And each tells a slightly different tale. For example, one letter mentions that the sender needs the account because the Nigerian government has "instructed and asked us to pay immediately all debts and outstanding payments to all foreign firms." The other letters never mention this.

NIGERIAN CLOCKS are nine hours ahead of those in the United States, which makes it necessary to call very late at night or early in the morning. The voice on the other end of the line is heavily accented and nearly incomprehensible. Before identifying himself, "Dr. Usman D. Bello" asks my name. Then, strangely enough, he asks for his own name. ("Can you confirm my name to me?")

Bello doesn't bother to answer when asked whether a U.S. bank would be suspicious of a $28.5 million deposit. Instead, he gets a fax number and sends an invoice he wants reprinted in this company's letterhead. He stresses that all our transactions must be swift and secret.

When asked whether he is affiliated with the two other people who have sent letters to Markley Strings, Dr. Williams Nwachukwu and Dr. Joel Akidi, Bello says to ignore them. Dr. Nwachukwu has been "dismissed" and Dr. Akidi has been "transferred."

In response to other questions typical of a nervous customer--is this legal? Will I get arrested? Is this one of those Nigerian scams I read about in the newspapers?--each time Bello's response is the same: "If I was in your position, I would ask all these questions."

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro

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