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Has this dictator's widow got a deal for you ...

Spamsters aren't just lazy Internet users surfing from the laptop of luxury. Nowadays, a flood of e-mail comes from Africa - purportedly from petroleum functionaries and the next of kin of former dictators, to be precise.

Alas, no role for Halle Berry. But I'm playing James Bond - well, maybe Austin Powers - in the toils of an evil genius. Don't call me 007, though. Try 4-1-9 (see below).

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You laugh. Please! But I'm not on her fictional majesty's secret service pursued by a mere Blofeld. I'm frequently in touch with the real US Secret Service (USSS) about whoever's out to get my money.

I imagine my nemesis tapping at a remote jungle keyboard or perhaps disguised as a teenager using the next Internet terminal at Starbucks. He or she is pretending to be all the far-flung e-mailers who apologize for the intrusion but say they heard good things about me from a Nigerian, or perhaps Canadian, chamber of commerce.

My in box fills with oddly similar messages purportedly signed by widows of African rulers (Abacha, Mobutu), petroleum functionaries, government officials, or the woman who offers 15 percent of the $300 million in cash kept aside by "Slobodan and my husband" before Milosevic's legal troubles. All I have to do is use my bank account to launder the however-gotten gains and collect my percentage.

In other words, I - like you? - have become the target of an international crime that the Secret Service says has "undergone a dramatic increase in recent years." The name is Advance Fee Fraud (AFF) or "4-1-9" after a fraud section of the penal code in Nigeria, from which many of the e-mails or snail-mail letters come.

In response to "this growing epidemic," the USSS set up Operation 4-1-9. And its Financial Crimes Division gets about 100 phone calls from victims or potential victims and 300 to 500 items of related correspondence per day. Some of those are from me, taking the USSS suggestion to forward suspicious e-mails to this address: 419fcd@usss.treas.gov.

Like I'm going to deposit 20 mil in an ATM or have eye contact with a teller? - "A bit more than your last deposit, I believe, just give me half a mo'."

The USSS says the AFF perpetrators are very creative. It warns that the typical "fund transfer scam" letter is more effective, even while "appearing transparent and even ridiculous to most."

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This and more can be found in the "Public Awareness Advisor" at www.secretservice.gov/alert419.shtml. It categorizes the most common forms of fraudulent proposals.

Missing is a category for one of the latest I've received. If only the scamsters had not made everything seem like 4-1-9. This e-mail doesn't offer millions skimmed from Nigerian oil assets. It doesn't ask for private information or mention my repute with the Lagos chamber of commerce. It begins with "Hi, how are you doing?" from a 17-year-old orphaned computer student. She's not like that New Yorker panhandling on the Internet to pay off credit-card charges for luxuries. She just needs $185 for tuition money to get away from her insensitive aunt and be a daughter to me.

Certainly Blofeld would never write closing words like these to James Bond: "I sent an Angel to watch over you while you were asleep but the Angel came back earlier than I expected, and I asked the Angel why, and he said, Angels don't watch over Angels. May you be an Angel to someone in need, Amen."

Maybe there is a role for Halle Berry.

Roderick Nordell was a longtime editor at the Monitor.


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