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Fraud from abroad

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Some of the scams are twists on old standards, such as "gifting" programs that cite Internal Revenue Code that allows anyone to give anyone else $10,000 yearly, tax-free. Sometimes called Season of Sharing, or Women Empowering Women, the cons target women and are, in fact, illegal pyramids that have prompted warnings from the IRS for violating gifting statutes.

The US Secret Service has set up a task force to combat the Nigerian fee swindle. In this ruse, a letter arrives at home or work one day postmarked Nigeria, Togo, or some other West African country.

The letter writer claims to be working with Nigeria's national oil company, for instance, in such a high-level capacity that he or she has been able to siphon off tens of millions of dollars from contracts.

The executive has no way to get the funds out of the country, unless the American would kindly provide his or her bank account number so that the money can be transferred.

Of course, the American will get a fat percentage of the take. And, of course, anyone falling for this will have his or her banking accounts looted in the blink of an eye.

This African-based scam has taken to the Internet to reach a wider audience. "Any crook who doesn't use the Internet ought to be sued for malpractice," jokes Alabama's Borg. Not all online swindlers operate from abroad. His state is prosecuting a Phenix City, Ala., businessman who, working from a storefront with just computers and no other advertising, convinced 33,000 people from all 50 states and 32 foreign countries to send him $300 each in a loan program during a four-month period in 1999-2000.

The Alabama case was part of one of today's faster-growing swindles: religious affinities.

Hustlers will often direct their work toward members of a certain religion and tell them, for instance, that they have developed a loan program based upon Christian principles and are in need of seed money, or loans that promise quick and profitable repayment.

Officials in Florida are still trying to find much of the $500 million that the self-proclaimed Internet missionary church Greater Ministries International, of Tampa, Fla., swindled from people in what has been called a classic Ponzi scheme.

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