International Scams Seek to Steal Your Dollars
Attempts to take your money from afar are as old as the Barbary Pirates who roamed the seas in the 1700s and as new as the e-mail messages waiting in your inbox every morning.
The global economy and the Internet combine to bring residents of the world together in new ways. While that often leads to positive experiences, it also makes it more likely that Americans will encounter international con artists on the Internet or while traveling for business or pleasure.
"As long as there is an opportunity and people are vulnerable or even just naïve, they will be targets," says Barry Thompson, managing partner of The Thompson Consulting Group, LLC, Oswego, N.Y.
Nigerian letters evolve
Thompson uses Nigerian letter scams as an example of how international fraud operates. Often called "419" scams after the related section of Nigerian law, these scams promise that the participant will receive something of value in return for sending cash in advance.
In the 1700s, the Barbary Pirates used a version of this scheme to tell the families of Americans traveling in Africa that their loved one had been kidnapped but would return safely if a ransom was paid. The catch was that the kidnapping had never occurred, but the family didn't learn that until the traveler returned and was reunited with his family, often months or even years after the funds had been sent.
Vulnerable or naïve people often are targets.
Today, Nigerian letters typically arrive via an e-mail message or U.S. mail letter claiming that a reputable authority figure in Nigeria or another African nation needs help transferring millions of dollars to U.S. accounts.
If the member who receives the message agrees to help, he or she is promised a percentage of those funds. But first, the member must send some sort of advance fee to cover the costs of the transaction. The sender typically continues to develop reasons to charge new fees until the member is broke or wises up. When the member stops paying fees, the sender disappears.
Nigerian letter scams often reflect current events, such as plane crashes or terrorist attacks. In this twist, the letter may claim that an heir to a person killed in the event needs an American's help to collect the money.
Misspellings, clumsy wording, or poor grammar were once part of appeals from international con artists. That has changed as international gangs with the expertise and education to craft more believable messages have gained prominence.
Wearing sneakers "screams that you are American."
Thompson notes that the Russian Mafia is often behind international scams. This gang of criminals draws on the talents of KGB agents and others who were suddenly unemployed when the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1990s.
Distance alone once would have meant that American consumers were safe at home from these con artists, but now international criminals often deliver their appeals over the Internet, by telephone, or by fax machine.
For example, they may use "phishing" e-mail messages that appear to be from your credit union to try to persuade you to submit valuable personal information, such as account numbers or Social Security numbers that can be used in fraud or identity theft. Don't bite. The people at your credit union never would ask you for this type of information by e-mail or by phone—they already have it on file.
These con artists also may create fake Web sites to get you to download information that also downloads a program that captures your personal information, or use "social engineering" to make you believe that you can safely share personal information.
The Internet also makes it possible for these criminals to conduct dating scams, which Thompson views as the most contemptible form of fraud.
International criminals often deliver their appeals over the Internet, by telephone, or by fax.
"They are going to make money from someone's pain," Thompson says.
International con artists often snare lovelorn Americans through online dating sites. Once the American's interest is piqued, his or her online correspondent claims to have a sudden need for funds, often due to a personal tragedy, illness, or injury.
Other common scenarios used to conduct international fraud by U.S. mail or e-mail include:
As residents of the world's richest country, Americans automatically become targets when traveling abroad. Thompson advises adopting the dress and customs of the host country to avoid being targeted. It's especially important to give up wearing sneakers.
"If you step on the streets of Europe, you'll see that people don't wear them," Thompson says. "It screams that you are an American."
The second rule is to avoid being tempted by greed into a "deal" on antiquities or other items.
"If someone is offering to charge you almost nothing for something that you know would be quite valuable in the U.S., check it out first," Thompson says. It's likely to be a fake.
Travelers who were persuaded to visit an overseas country to check out a "business opportunity" must be especially vigilant. Business people traveling to countries such as Nigeria on these scams have been assaulted and even killed as part of deals that ranged in size from thousands to millions of dollars.
Nigerian letters typically arrive via e-mail messages.
Thompson notes that international con artists deliberately craft appeals that seem believable, making it easy for the victim's greed to overcome common sense.
"Everybody is tempted once in a while," Thompson says. "That's why people buy lottery tickets despite astronomical odds against winning."
When tempted by something that seems too good to be true, Thompson advises taking a deep breath and asking questions of both yourself and the person offering the deal.
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