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Con Artists in Nigeria Seek Gullible Targets In the Americas


PSSSST. Want to make a quick $21 million?

The enticement isn't quite so blatant. But a letter fraud scheme - originating in Nigeria and offering huge sums of money - is now showing up in Mexico and Latin America.

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"It swept through Europe and the United States in 1989 and 1990. Canada has been hit in the last couple of years. Now it's coming south," warns Juan Carlos Antoniassi, Interpol's Latin American liaison officer.

A letter received recently by a Mexican businessman here is typical of the scam. On official-looking letterhead, George Ozurumba of Owerri City, Nigeria, asks for assistance in getting $70 million out of his country.

If you quietly accept the overpayment into your bank account, Mr. Ozurumba promises, you will receive 30 percent of the $70 million for your services. Nigeria's national controller, described as a relative of the writer, is facilitating the process. An acquaintance has vouched for your integrity. And, the letter continues, you are cordially invited to Nigeria to confirm the details.

Those who take the bait are typically greeted at the Lagos International Airport by a limousine.

The con artists take their targets to official government offices where they are met by government officials. The documents with which they are presented are on real or well-forged government stationary. On occasion, an "Army general" is toted out to complete the charade.

"A Chicago merchant took his attorney with him. His lawyer was impressed and told him this was a legitimate deal. The guy lost $50,000," says Jim Christianson, an agent with Interpol's fraud section in Washington.

To complete the transaction, the swindlers request a bank account number, corporate invoices, blank corporate letterhead, and phone, fax, and telex numbers for the target's corporate account. Sometimes a small percentage of the deposit sum - equivalent to tens of thousands of dollars - is requested to cover expenses or bank fees.

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But once the thieves have this information, they don't need to request fees; they can steal all the money they want from the victim's bank account.

Fifteen Canadians have been cheated out of a reported total of $2.5 million, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Over the last three years, some 2,500 letters have been received. And the scam continues.

Officials say there are probably other victims who are too ashamed to report being duped.

The Nigerian government is clearly embarrassed by its growing reputation as a fraud center and acknowledges that in the long term, the reputation will discourage legitimate investors. It has bought advertising space in US and European publications to warn companies of the schemes.

But police investigating the fraud schemes report little evident help from Nigerian law enforcement agencies. "We've asked the Nigerians to investigate. But in three years, we've not received a single reply," says Corp. Mario Roy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police commercial fraud section.

Nigerian officials say the fraudulent practices are a violation of their laws. The problem is that the scam generates "serious amounts of money - enough money to pay off government officials, to computerize mailings, and still have plenty of profit," says Mr. Antoniassi, the Interpol agent.

The fraud has several variations. Generally, a government ministry - such as aviation or communications - is mentioned. Usually, there is a relative or associate who is a high-ranking official. But there are often grammatical errors.

Officials say there are a half dozen similar scams now being perpetrated. "I call them the Nigerian bunco schemes," says Mr. Christianson at Interpol.

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