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Beware of unsolicited e-mails

March 10, 2002 

At first glance, the unsolicited e-mail made it look like Jan Pacitti was just keystrokes away from becoming a millionaire.

It came from a purported government official running the South African mining industry, who told Pacitti and other staffers at the PAWS Farm wildlife refuge in Mount Laurel - to which the e-mail was sent late last month - that they could share in a $25.2 million windfall.

All they need do, the e-mail said, was forward money, or submit their bank account numbers, to cover the "legal fees" needed to free up the big cash bonanza.

"It was all hush-hush, secret-secret. It said we'd get a big payoff if we kept our mouths shut," Pacitti said. "Ha, ha. This had 'scam' written all over it."

At the advice of a friend, Pacitti notified the county Office of Consumer Affairs. It was the second complaint the office received last week about the apparent resurgence of this decade-old "advance fee" dodge, usually perpetrated by confidence rings based in Nigeria, but more recently spread to other parts of western Africa and South Africa.

Law enforcement officials refer to the swindle as the "419" scam, after a section of the Nigerian penal code that covers fraud. Letters promising riches have been circulating since the early 1990s, before e-mail became commonly used. By all indications, the emergence of e-mail capability has given the scam new life.

"Same old song, different channel," county Consumer Affairs Director Renee Borstad said. "I got a call in the past week from a guy in Marlton about this. Somebody had gotten his e-mail address. Now that we have e-mail, these people have it easy."

Neither Pacitti nor the Evesham man lost money. However, the U.S. Secret Service, responsible for investigating Internet-linked financial crimes, estimates that the 419 swindles net offshore crooks $10 million a year. In a typical month, the con rings send 9,000 e-mails, 3,000 faxes and 1,000 regular mailings to potential marks, the agency believes.

"It's mainly organized crime in Nigeria. It seems they've been flooding the market with these e-mails and letters," said Glen McElravy, the supervising special agent in charge of financial investigations for the Secret Service's Philadelphia District, which covers Burlington County.

"It's enormous," McElravy said. The widespread scam prompted the Secret Service to open a field office in Lagos, Nigeria, where agents have made some progress in blunting the swindles. In 1996, agents and Nigerian police arrested more than 40 Nigerian nationals and seized electronics, bogus government letterheads and files containing Internet and financial data on victims.

The estimated loss is just that. McElravy said many victims may be too embarrassed to report their losses.

Cinnaminson police have had their own encounters with the scam under somewhat different circumstances. Mailings were sent to at least two local health-care providers in recent months, Detective Dennis Chesney said.

In one case, a letter was sent to the main office of a radiology practice in Haddonfield, which forwarded it, for unknown reasons, to its satellite operation in Cinnaminson. This was at the height of the anthrax-mailing scare in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Employees at the radiology lab, seeing the letter's crudely hand-addressed envelope and foreign postage, became suspicious and called Cinnaminson police, Chesney said. Instead of anthrax, officers found a letter on stationery purportedly from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. inside the envelope.

The letter lays out a textbook 419 swindle. It asks the recipient to help finance an illegal transaction that will allow participants to share in a $41.5 million overpayment to Nigeria for oil-refinery work. It promises an $8.3 million share in the loot if the recipient can provide a bank account number into which the funds can be surreptitiously "deposited."

The scammers usually try to clean out any account whose number they receive, or just pocket any advance funds they bilk from their victims to cover bogus legal fees or bribes to corrupt officials supposedly in on the scheme.

McElravy said people who get these e-mails can forward them to the Secret Service, which maintains an investigative database on them. The e-mail address is Letters that arrive via regular mail can be faxed to Secret Service headquarters at (202) 406-6930, he said.

Borstad stressed that for these frauds to work, they have to ensnare those who think they're in line for a quick payoff that they probably realize is fraudulent in its own right.

"Like I keep saying, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," she said.

By Jim Donnelly, BCT senior staff writer.

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