Schneier on Security
A blog covering security and security technology.
« TSA Aiding Luggage Thieves |
| Hacking a Teleprompter »
December 3, 2008
Who Falls for those Nigerian 419 Scams Anyway?
This is the story of a woman who sent the scammers $400K:
She wiped out her husband's retirement account, mortgaged the house and took a lien out on the family car. Both were already paid for.
For more than two years, Spears sent tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everyone she knew, including law enforcement officials, her family and bank officials, told her to stop, that it was all a scam. She persisted.
Spears said she kept sending money because the scammers kept telling her that the next payment would be the last one, that the big money was inbound. Spears said she became obsessed with getting paid.
An undercover investigator who worked on the case said greed helped blind Spears to the reality of the situation, which he called the worst example of the scam he's ever seen.
EDITED TO ADD (12/13): More about the story.
Posted on December 3, 2008 at 8:20 AM
• 68 Comments
To receive these entries once a month by e-mail, sign up for the Crypto-Gram Newsletter.
Why is it always "older women" that the press report as getting caught by scammers?
Does anybody know of a man getting caught in an endless cycle like this?
I know a guy who almost fell for one, but luckily he talked to a lawyer about the legality of it before he put any money in.
I'm surprised no one had her committed at least until health care professionals could have convinced her of the lunacy of her actions. Hopefully her fate will stand as a warning to other folks who hope to become wealthy from these scams. If folks want an (un)healthy dose of scams I suggest: http://www.urgentmessage.org
I am fascinated by the fact that "...a reverend and a registered nurse ..." will be able to recoup a $400,000 loss in "...at least three to four years ..."! Especially as gullible as she is. They probably built a monument to her in Lagos.
Yeah, I know a guy who keeps doing this. He's been banned from at least one bank. The scam involves cashing checks for people. All sorts of people have told him to stop, including law enforcement. He doesn't.
My suspicion is that you hear about more women falling for scams because people around them are more willing to step in and take steps to end the situation.
This sounds eerily similar to a gambling addiction, and the sad fact is that some people are prone to it. In the end there is no way to protect them; the freedom to do what you like with your own money is inseperable from your ability to throw it all away.
Women live longer than men. More older women versus older men, no?
Greed is its own reward.
The irony is that she is very lucky that it was a scam. The only negative effect of the "victim's" actions is that she lost money.
If the story were true she would lose the money anyway in civil fines plus spend then next 10-20 years in prison for money laundering, tax evasion, conspiracy, etc.
Actually, lots of people fall for the Nigerian scam. That's why they keep running it. It just rarely makes the news. Who is going to report it? Most people are too embarrassed even to report it to the police.
Here in Minnesota a woman lost $12K last month in a 419, including money she stole from work. Two years ago a man in Duluth, MN (IIRC), lost $200K, bankrupted himself, embezzled, etc. under the belief that the big payoff was just around the corner.
"Spears said it would take her at least three to four years to dig out of the debt she ran up in pursuit of the non-existent pot of Nigerian gold."
It will take three to four years to dig out of debt. That says nothing of the retirement savings she already sent. Four years will have them at 0, when before they were well above 0. That of course is by her reckoning, which is obviously suspect.
I recall a case of a (male) Doctor in FL who did pretty much the same thing.
@Clive Robinson: one such man made news in Czech Republic couple of years back. He got repeatedly scammed -- that's amazing in itself, but what made the news was how he dealt with it in the end. He went to the Nigerian embassy and attacked and seriously injured the ambassador with a machete. I kid you not.
@Clive Robinson: "Why is it always "older women" that the press report as getting caught by scammers? Does anybody know of a man getting caught in an endless cycle like this?"
I know of an 80+ year old man in Florida who lost, coincidentally, 400K, in a short incident (not one where he kept coming back, but where he lost his entire retirement account). I don't know of any incident, man or woman, where they pushed 400K into something over time and through as muche effort as this one (it is one thing to lose your account, it's another to lose an account, then mortage a car and lose it, then vehicles, etc.).
This "victim" is an idiot, no other conclusion can be drawn.
Wasn't there a huge rash of people falling for this in Albania several years back? Enough to damage their national economy, IIRC....
Dave: Yes, I recall the Albanian economy being brought down by, in effect, pyramid schemes. I don't recall specifics, but I do recall reading that it happened.
You can check out the MMF Hall of Humiliation (http://www.mmfhoh.org), where you will find lots of stories of folks falling for this type of scam - in some cases, the victims have found themselves prosecuted (mostly for passing bad checks.)
Oh, yeah, and to quote a country song, "Guys do it, all the time..."
"Yes, I recall the Albanian economy being brought down by, in effect, pyramid schemes."
Ha, nothing like that would ever happen to the western world...
It's hardly a surprise that there are going to be a small but finite supply of people who fall for this. Neither is it surprising that they are going to tend somewhat towards the lunatic fringe. Gender has nothing to do with it.
I just hope the scammers use the money more responsibly than she did.
Funny enough, Colombia is in a crisis right now over pyramid schemes, including one that went all the way to the higher spheres of government and served as a money launder operation.
All the time I saw the several pyramids collapse I couldn't help but be amazed at the greed and stupidity of people. It's a textbook scam, and still whole small cities are bankrupt now.
And this is why I worry when relatives and friends ask me about urban legends/warnings.
Of course, when I tell them it's all horsepucky, they get angry with me for exposing their gullibility.
Lot's more 'scamming the scammer' stories here: http://www.419eater.com/
at least these scammers aren't attacking ships on the open seas...
Interesting this hit today. The guy I am sitting across from just received a e-mail message from a personal friend (directly from his friends personal e-mail account) saying he was in trouble and needed $1000 sent to him. When the reply button was hit, the reply e-mail address was just very slightly different from the original.
Only sharp observation caught the scam. The e-mail exchange continues to be very well thought out and convincing and we will see how far we can take this.
This woman was taken by a well known and very fihy scam. How many people are taken by the newer, much more sophisticated scams?
I'm currently living in Africa. I read just read the Wikipedia Article about scam. There's also Love-Scam mentioned. Same thing actually, just with love involved.
This made me laugh - as I know such girls. I was even together with one, for a while (because she was really really hot ;). It's unbelievable how easily Europeans or Americans believe this shit. It is all true. I saw it.
People keep falling for these scams because they believe that only idiots can be scammed and they, themselves, are not idiots. The only way out of this trap is to accept that good, decent, intelligent people can be scammed too, so that even if you're a good, decent, intelligent person, you still need to watch out.
And if you're a good, decent, intelligent person who also reads this blog and knows a lot about scams, then you have to be doubly careful, because that knowledge will only add to your instinctive sense of invulnerability.
I confirm the love scam. One of my coworkers fell for it. He was raving about this Nigerian girl he met on the Internet that was going to fly in and meet him. He wanted to marry her. He had sent her the cash for the ticket. Then things got tricky. She got into an accident on her way to the airport, there was some damage to pay, and the ambulance ride to the hospital. Then she had to pay for the hospital. Then her passport got stolen and she had to bribe officials to get a new one. Then the elders of the family objected to her marrying an American and needed money to let her go. Then...
This went on and on for months. Every week, something else happened and he had to send more money. I tried to make the guy understand it was a scam, but he was completely oblivious and kept sending more money.
Finally, he caught on and was so embarrassed he left the company without a word.
If I was the husband of the woman in question, I would have buried the dumb broad out back and called it a day.
There's no excuse for that kind of stupidity and naivety, particularly when it affects others close to them.
@SysKoll: That's really sad. Money is much more important in these countries as it is in ours. It's another mentality and I can understand it; I don't tolerate it, but I accept it. It's unfair but I would do the same thing in their situation as it is easy money. Way too easy for such fucked-up countries. Only requirement: You must be a bit beautiful.
I once met a girl who told me: "I've got 4 banks! ;)"
Elderly and infirm aside, what amazes me is that such fools manage to amass six figures to lose in the first place.
I know a middle-aged divorcee who met a man online. They never met in person, but she fell in love with him and they got engaged. Eventually he went to Nigeria on business and needed her to send money for some business deal of his. Everyone told her not to but I think that she spent 6 figures (including borrowing heavily from friends) and now the guy is in a Nigerian prison and incommuniccado. If she finds more money, he might surface long enough to ask her to send it.
Why do these people always claim to be from Nigeria? She was wiring money to England, so he could have claimed to be from somewhere less obviously bad then Nigeria.
"Spears also teaches CPR and is a reverend who has married many couples. She also communicates with lightning-fast sign language with her hearing-impaired husband."
Yeah, I bet she reads that one-finger sign from her husband really fast after she wiped out his retirement savings...
Dare Obasanjo, program manager at Microsoft, is the son of a former Nigerian president. So, he has to read those emails.
There is more to the story.
She was only stopped after the feds raided here house. Several suspect wire transfers in a short period ...
On Your Side Investigator Anna Song comments:
We came across this story while attending a conference on financial crimes in Eugene. State attorneys for the Oregon Department of Justice were using this case as a teaching tool, with the name of the victim redacted. I was astonished, as many of you are, that someone could lose $400,000 in a Nigerian scam. These are the type of emails we all routinely get in our inbox, if our spam filter doesn’t catch them first. I inquired with the state attorneys about whether this victim would be interested in talking with me. To my surprise, she agreed.
I went to Sweet Home with a high level of skepticism. What I found was a normal, middle-class home near an elementary school, a deaf husband trying to fix his phone so that it would vibrate instead of ring, and his wife, Janella Spears, trying to get their grandkids to calm down so we could do a television interview.
Investigators with the Oregon Department of Justice initially discovered Spears when they were investigating a different money laundering case. While looking at Western Union money transfers, they noticed someone had wired $144,000 to Nigeria over the course of three short weeks. It got their attention. They honed in on Spears, and did a full “money bust” at her home. After scouring her house, looking at all her financials, talking with local bank representatives and otherwise doing a complete investigation, the detectives concluded she was a true victim. Remember, investigators also had hundreds of emails to go through, revealing her correspondence with the Nigerian scammers and their creative stories aimed at bleeding money from her. Spears was never charged, and I have to go on the investigators’ judgment for that. For good measure, they’ve warned Spears that if she sends any more money to Nigeria, they will charge her with a crime. She admits it may be the only real deterrent for her, as fixing this became somewhat of an obsession.
Whether or not you believe her, Spears claims she wanted the money so she could help others in need.
The Nigerian scammers look for people like Janella Spears. Most of us have the sense to hit delete. But what about that older relative who has email, but is gullible or easily confused? Obviously, the scam works. That’s why it continues.
Thanks to all of you who have commented.
I can't decide which is worse - the nigerians who scammed her, or a government which makes it a crime to spend your own money however you see fit. There is no indication here in the news article or your report that the money she sent was anything more than her own legally obtained funds.
Wouldn't happen in the Western world? I'm not sure what qualifies as "the Western world", but there are those who say that a certain nation in the Western hemisphere is in serious economic trouble right now because of an elaborate scam involving securitization of poor-quality debt, and opaque financial structures built on top of the resulting leverage. Just like the classic Ponzi, it works fine as long as people keep investing more, but eventually too many people want to take their profits out, and then everyone suddenly discovers there there's nothing to back those accounts.
You're right, our country has been borrowing our way into disaster for decades. These bailouts aren't going to stop it, and soon enough a surge of people will be looking to collect social security which won't be there either, another debt disaster.
What's amusing is how many on the right excuse President Bush's big spending (and, for the record, Bush did not create this problem, but he didn't help matters any either), and how many on the left still think President Clinton delivered surpluses (he didn't, not to mention he pushed through sub prime mortages, not that I think its all his fault either). What, one might ask? We had surpluses in the 90s, right? Not exactly. While we may have technically took in more than was spent, we still incurred more obligations than we could handle. It's the equivalent of earning $30,000 a year, only spending $25,000, yet signing a "no interest until 2018" line of credit for $50,000 worth of remodeling.
In any case, this is off topic, but I wanted to respond to the economic crisis comment. We're a spend happy society and we elect spend happy politicians. While most people know better than to wire $400K to anyone, let alone someone they don't know, many still don't understand risk.
As a member of the press perhaps you can answer my original question,
"Why is it always "older women" that the press report as getting caught by scammers?"
From the responses to my second question there are obviously men who fall for the scams.
But I can only ever remember the UK press reporting "older women".
@Clive Robinson: "Why is it always "older women" that the press report as getting caught by scammers?"
I think there are a couple reasons. First, victimized women tend to get more sympathy than victimized men. Second, normally in the older category, it would likely be someone widowed (if they had a spouse, the odds of them both being this dumb would be less, and they would talk them out of it) and there are more widowed women than men (interesting, this was a case where the spouse was living, who like most tried to talk her out of it).
Third, and I really really hate to say this, these scammers see women as more naive and empathetic, and play on their emotions more. Whether or not that is the reality is not for me to answer, but I think it is the perception among the scammers. A "business" that turned out to be sued for fraud by other parties tried to get my wife and I to sign up. Their rules for attending their "presentation" were that the attendees must be: a single woman, a single woman with a live in boyfriend, or a married/engaged couple. They would not allow men to attend by themselves, but would allow women to, and my wife questioned this and they said "men usually don't see the value in this and take advantage of it unless persuaded by women." (translation: we find women to be more naive).
Please, I'm not saying this is the reality. I don't want women thinking I'm bashing their gender. I've said on this thread where my wife has twarted a couple scams. I'm just saying that it is how the perpetrators perceive it, and if you target a group more frequently, that is the group that will commonly be hit the hardest.
I used to spend a lot of time in places that offered Western Union money transfers (my job was repairing other equipment they had, and broke, often) - I can't count the number of people I overheard talking about why they were making a transfer. I'm glad I managed to talk all of them out of it (as far as I know, they may have come back) ... many of them were prepared to send thousands on the spot. All were retirement age, some seemed desperate, none seemed particularly bright.
"this is off topic"
Indeed. The original one-liner by Tim was fairly funny, but please don't derail this thread onto unrelated political topics.
I'd first seen this scam about ten years ago. While I did realise it was a scam pretty quickly, I however spent about 20 minutes wondering how somebody got my email to do that with (i.e. I thought it was personally targeted). I eventually realised that was just spam mail and promptly told everyone else in the company, who as it turned out also received the same email.
@Beta:I think you've hit the essence of it. if they convince you to do one transfer, no matter how small, then there would be a big temptation to continue in an attempt recover the initial money.
There is some truth in the fact that greed is a capital sin
Men may be too proud to admit that they were scammed. So you hear about more women scammed.
> "Yes, I recall the Albanian economy being
> brought down by, in effect, pyramid schemes."
> Ha, nothing like that would ever happen to
> the western world...
Heh. In the West the scam is professionally run from the Fed and Treasury (and their equivalents in other countries). Most Americans are too stupid to even realize that they're being had.
While this may be the worst case seen by that investigators, there are several publicly reported cases of a single victim losing millions of dollars -- often, embezzled money.
But those pale into insignificance compared to the Banco Noroeste case.
Two hundred. And forty-two. Million. Dollars.
It seems like we should set up a "honey pot" strike team in the US with specially supervised bank accounts where people can forward a Nigerian scam to and have the HP team take over, who then try to entice the scammer to come to US jurisdiction to claim THEIR funds.
Start em off with a little taste, like $200 or so, then say they'll have to meet em in person in Miami (for example) with cash for the rest cause they're afraid of banks failing and wont put any more money into an account. Surely some of the Nigerians are as gullible as we are..?
Last I checked you couldn't mortgage a house unless you spouse cosigned.
I also doubt you can wipe out your husband's retirement account without his permission either.
I think the writer of the story is sick and Bruce routinely falls for these things.
Bruce, I love the blog and read regularly, but posting old stories is becoming a bit of a habit - this story was first published November 14!
@Moderator: "Indeed. The original one-liner by Tim was fairly funny, but please don't derail this thread onto unrelated political topics."
I agree and I apologize. Some brought our current fiscal situation into this, I responded that greed is a problem because we are borrow-happy and went a bit too far in explaining how much blame there was to go around. Won't happen again.
@xxx: Actually, Jiri Pasovsky shot the Nigerian consul dead and also wounded a receptionist at the consulate. He allegedly lost $500,000. This guy was a physician, and some sources report that he even infiltrated the CIA as a double agent during the communist era, so he couldn't have been totally stupid either.
@Sturat: "Bruce, I love the blog and read regularly, but posting old stories is becoming a bit of a habit - this story was first published November 14!"
With holidays and work, not to mention life in general, if it took until after Thanksgiving for Bruce to get around talking about it, I don't really think that's a big deal. He may also have wanted to wait to see if more facts emerged. Who knows. Not to mention, its his blog and he can talk about anything he deems fit.
Why are banks unable to detect such behaviors? If I ran a bank, any funds transfer of more than three figures to Lagos would immediately be held and the account holder consulted.
@Albatross: "Why are banks unable to detect such behaviors? If I ran a bank, any funds transfer of more than three figures to Lagos would immediately be held and the account holder consulted."
According to the story, bank officials (not to mention law enforcement) were telling her it was a scam and she proceeded. It was her money, and if the bank officials warned her and she proceeded anyway, I honestly don't see under what authority they could forbid her to give her money to whoever she chooses.
Thank you, HJohn.
Averros, I'll say it once more with feeling: don't derail this thread onto unrelated political topics. You have a longstanding habit of dropping little messages about the evils of government into threads at the least opportunity; please stop.
No sympathies for the victims. But for greed this kind of attacks would never have been successful.
For an interesting audio account of 419 scams, be sure to listen to This American Life #363, "The Enforcers", where "Professor So and So, Jojobean and YeaWhatever spend part of each day running elaborate cons on Internet scammers."
It's a fantastic story that makes you wonder if you should feel sorry for the scammers or the scammers' victims.
SumDumGuy wrote "I can't decide which is worse - the nigerians who scammed her, or a government which makes it a crime to spend your own money however you see fit".
It's a crime because these schemes are almost invariably couched in terms of some corrupt official trying to transfer money without the legitimate authorities knowing about it. To help such people is to help them commit fraud. Even if you're really being scammed, you're still trying to commit fraud.
Anyone who is so stupid as to fall for this should be placed under conservatorship.
It's sad to think that this is really going on, but in this cyber world it has totally taken its toll. And the point is they are so smooth; different scenarios for different folks. Lotteries, bank holdings, people searching for the true love. First the couple of notes, then the, "Let's IM" and then onto the love letters. "You are my dream come true!" They listen to what you say and then know how to use it. You like kids, they have kids, etc. Watch out for the ones that have to go and rescue them from the ex and get stranded. By then you are hooked on them for love and they are waiting to see if your love is true. No loss on my end though, no money to give and love loss hurts, but you can get over that easier than losing your hard earned savings. It's funny, the second they ask for help because they can't get home, sets that flag up "what was he thinking?" Maybe she is naive, maybe so, but sorry buddy not stupid. Anyway, that is my 2 cents here.
I will want to start off this year by praying that 'even though I cannot totally terminate the existence of this scammers in Nigeria, I will sure do sift them amongst all other innocent ones'.
You see, everybody in here knows for sure that Nigerians have been labeled and Tagged for whatever we are.I cannot blame anybody but i know all is not gonna last forever.I have been thinking( and still thinking) of how best to PIN these people down and serve them justice as it deems fit. I know all will simmer if a few of them are being picked and sentenced.I know it will happen someday..but in the meantime, i am working on a website that would help any individual or corporate bodies abroad check the level of fraud in Nigeria.I have been to cybercafe to help victims and i have a list of them- USA,Germany,Philippines and all.from stolen credit card information and different proposals to send checks and all...believe it or not they are limitless.but sooner or later ,all will take another shape. Maybe someday things might change but I am up to the task.Of course,I cannot be sorry for what they have done,but I need you all to be conscious and alert in sharing personal information cos personal information is the first break of their motives...Thanks
A Nigerian Initiative
These people are also thief. Why don't you stop when you paid once and nothing came out!
Its called "Culling". This is how the heard gets thinned out. If people are stupid enough to fall for these scams they deserve what they get. From the idiot who thinks some beautiful woman in Nigeria actually wants to marry him after 30 minutes of chat to the fool who actually thinks that someone with the same last name left millions behind in Nigerian Oil money and he can get it. They make their choices, do the deeds let them pay the price. Trust no one and even less if their online!
My aunt fell for this scam and it almost sent her and my uncle into bankruptcy. My mom told me what happened and I couldn't help, but laugh. How stupid can you be to fall for this scam so bad that you lose your entire life savings? Absolutely idiotic. Anyone who gets scammed needs to be found legally incompetant of being able to handle their own money and should be appointed a payee. To keep sending money over and over again until you've lost $400,000 is sick. The woman in this story needs a psychiatric evaluation. 5150 anyone?
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of BT.