E-mail Scam Letters - An Inside Look Into A Nigerian Prince Reaching Out
What To Do When You Get That Call
Hello Dearest One
I remember where I was when I received my first "Hello Dearest One" letter. It was actually faxed to me before the internet had taken off and become such a convenient method of communicating. The letter arrived by fax at my office ten years ago and I will never forget what that felt like to hold a letter that said that a long lost relative had died and I was going to be rich. My desire to believe that letter was complicated; I had just returned from a trip to West Africa and there were enough details in the letter to make me believe that perhaps someone with whom I had connected had "adopted" me and was now graciously including me in his vast inheritance, and I had come from a family in which there was the possibility of a large inheritance (prior to it being stolen by a family member). And so with my background and slim glimmers of hope, I read and re-read that letter. Could it be true? Could it be possible that I was now as rich as the letter said I was? And finally on the 5th reading, I began to notice the obvious flaws in my dream...HELLO DEAREST ONE...
I'm in Amsterdam, can you help me?
Those were the first words from my friend when I took the collect international call. A collect call was a big deal and an international collect call was even a bigger deal in those days. "I'm in Amsterdam and I need your help," my friend Susan(name changed to protect her) was near hysteria and my mind was racing. "What are you doing in Amsterdam and how did you get there?" I asked as I tried to calm her down. And then she said it, "Do you remember that letter I talked to you about...?" And my heart sank.
Several weeks ago Susan had called me all excited because she had just gotten a letter, delivered by US Postal mail that said CERTIFIED on the inside (but not on the outside - CLUE #1) that said she was named in an inheritance and needed to go to Germany to collect her money. And she was VERY excited. She was struggling with significant debt and was recently divorced and extremely desperate. Vulnerable and desperate, willing to jump at any straw to believe that her life had hope. And here it was a letter in her hands - she was going to be rich!
As I tried to calm her down, she started getting angry and downright belligerent accusing me of being jealous of her good fortune and without reciting the entire conversation, ended up hanging up on me. At the time, I didn't think much of it because I had been very clear with her that the letter was a scam and that under no circumstances should she act on it...and then I got the call, "I'm in Amsterdam, can you help me?
Is it possible that the Nigerian Prince letter scam
remains a powerful tool for criminals because
victims are embarrassed that they were duped,
that they wanted it to be true?
When a friends is in trouble...
I am usually the first call for help within my family and friends, even people I don't hear from for years know that if in trouble - call Kathy. And usually these are the same people who will ask for advice before getting into trouble and don't listen to the advice. But that is okay, I am all over people making their own decisions, exerting their own choices and then helping them learn from their experiences. In my own poverty eradication work, it is a process of shared learning that makes the the lessons so powerful and the learning sustainable. I recently did a TEDx that talks about this concept of being detached from the outcome that you can view on YouTube of you would like to know more.
I am the first call because anyone who knows me knows that I will act and support without judgement so we can cut through any pretenses of shame or guilt that may otherwise come from feeling judged about a decision that goes wrong. And so with this background and understanding Susan called me from Amsterdam in distress.Now I may act without judgement but that also means that I am not a care-taker, so if in the future you should decide to call me, we will work out the solution together, I will not do it for you. And despite Susan's requests for me to send her money immediately so that she could get back to the United States (she had an account number for me to wire money to for her return ticket) - it was not up to me to become a victim of this incredibly convoluted scam. We needed to figure out how to get her back to the United States period. And that meant confirming that she was in Amsterdam. (CLUE #2 - if you get a call or e-mail from a friend claiming to be in trouble in another country - confirm before acting!)
Preying on the Vulnerable and Hopeful
Despite every warning sign - the desire for the dream to be true is so great, and happens so quickly, it is almost understandable how it happens...follow this chain of events...
This is how this particular scam worked
Before acting, I first confirmed that my friend was actually in Amsterdam - I did this by asking for her phone number and location, exact location - physical address. She was fortunately calling from a hotel phone so she was in a place with other people and in a public place - really important for safety. She had been instructed to call me for money and had been given an account to wire the money being request to. But I get ahead of myself. I got the phone number and street address where she was and told her I would call her back. I then looked up the name of the hotel independently, then called the hotel front desk number advertised and asked for her.
In this case, she was actually there waiting for my call at the lobby phone. This was 10 years ago, now, it might have been easier to check via a cell phone, but I like the land line method of verifying because they have to physically be present. If my friend had not been there as described, I would have called the State Department to report that I suspected a friend was in trouble internationally. If she was indeed in The Nederlands, they would have a record of her passport going through immigration - wherever she was in the world, if she left the country.
Once I was able to confirm that she was indeed at a hotel lobby in Amsterdam I asked her to tell me what had happened and I took notes, I did this in case she were to go missing, I would have as much information as possible to give to the authorities and here's what she told me:
- She called the phone number on the letter she was sent
- She talked to a very nice English gentleman who was delighted to hear from her
- He indicated that time was of the essence and they needed to act quickly before the corrupt government officials took her money out of their account
- He had a plane ticket in her name waiting at the airport to fly to The Nederlands where she would be picked up at the airport and driven by chauffeur to Germany, the bank was located closer to The Nederlands than any of the other airports in Germany, so that would be the fastest way
- All she needed to collect her ticket was to fax to him a copy of her passport and a voided check so that they could deposit her necessary spending money into her account and she promptly complied (CLUES # 3 & #4 - NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER) A criminal with access to a US passport - is like giving someone a million dollars - just don't do on any level, bank accounts can be closed, but your passport is sacred)
- Almost immediately after receiving a call from a travel agent that her first class plane ticket was ready for her evening departure, she check her bank account and the $5,000 was there, which she promptly withdrew. (CLUE #5 Don't withdraw money from your account that is not yours - in this case the original deposit was reversed and the retirement deposit that she had made as part of her divorce settlement was used to make good on the bad deposit which had been withdrawn by Susan...wait for it, the criminals asked for the $5,000 back - the cash she was instructed to bring, so that they could use that to open her new account in The Nederlands to receive the inheritance)
- So if you are following the money trail - Susan has withdrawn $5,000 in cash out of her account which she thought was to facilitate the transfer, and ended up getting scammed out of her own retirement money and actually handed over her money to the criminals.
- All of this is happening so fast that she does not have time to realize that there is a hold on the $5,000 because it shows as being in her count and she had just made a large deposit so didn't know that her own money was being used to secure the withdrawal. (Banks are now onto this scam and have put in place safeguards that were not in place 10 years ago)
- within 2 hours of her cash withdrawal, there is a knock at the door and the driver is ready to take her to the airport where her ticket was waiting (CLUE #6 always have the ticket in your hand before leaving for the airport - had Susan done this she would have noticed that it was a ONE-WAY ticket)
- When she complained that she had had no time to pack, the driver told her that everything would be taken care of clothing, accessories, etc, when she arrived in Amsterdam and all she needed was her identification and passport and of course, the cash she had been instructed to bring,and since she was flying first class she didn't even need to worry about a toothbrush. (CLUE 7 - sudden trips may sound romantic, but getting the bum's rush probably means you are getting into trouble; and CLUE #8 if your driver knows that you are supposed to be carrying a large amount of cash and reminds you to be sure you have the cash - RUN)
- She got whisked into the airport just in time to walk through security, the gold lane of course because she was going first class and arrived just in time to order her first drink on the plane - never noticing that she had just gotten on a one-way journey - CLUE #9 DON'T leave home without telling several people where you are going, an address and when they should expect you to return - this is just a smart travel practice no matter what.
- She was picked up as Schipol Airport in a limo and taken to her hotel where she met the distinguished British gentleman whose name she didn't quite get on the phone, nor at this moment (CLUE #10 - get the name of the person with whom you are ding business, and or the handler who you are going to meet in another country & Clue 11 - this is not a time to be Minnesota-nice, I always ask people with whom I work internationally to please write their name down and then help me pronounce it).
- Anyway after Mr. Distinguished British Gentleman met her at the door of her hotel, he told her that it was too early to check in, suggested that they have breakfast in the dining room and then they would transact their business, after that was done, she could come back to the hotel, check in and celebrate her good fortunes. (CLUE #12 - Check in no matter what. Most hotels will make a copy of your passport and that creates a record of where you are in the world - if Susan had gone missing, we could have located her movements based on checking in)
- If you are keeping track of the time-line, Susan is in Amsterdam less than 24 hours after making the phone call to collect her inheritance (CLUE #13 - this expedited timeline didn't allow for any reflection or thinking about what was really happening and capitalized on Susan's adrenaline and hopes - not to mention that jet lag and no sleep become factors in poor decision-making)
- After breakfast, they get into their waiting car and drive for "about an hour - Susan is not certain because she kept dozing off despite her excitement and they stop in front of an office building in a town somewhere in Europe and the two of them go in.
- She is brought into a very elegant office and told that it would not be safe for her to go to the bank to claim her fortune, so her Gentleman would take the $5,000 and her identification and a proxy form that he had had drawn up so that he could set up her new European account opening it with the $5,000 and then create the wire transfer of her inheritance. The proxy asked for her tax information including her social security number and this is where I come in, 3 references that could be called to verify her identity CLUE #14 JUST DON'T - thieves with your passport, social security number and bank information can sell your identity on the black market so fast - Don't don't don't)
- She signed everything, filled out the paperwork, gave him the money and started counting her good fortune (later she admitted that thoughts of telling me"I told you so" and flaunting her wealth crossed her mind}
- After about 45 minutes (she wasn't exactly sure of the timeline because she again dozed off, her friend arrived back into the room, flushed with excitement. He had the receipts, a checkbook whit her name printed on it with the opening balance of a little over $50,000. He explained that the remaining inheritance had been wired into several accounts that he opened up for her to be safe and he gave her statements with balances on them that again fueled her hopes - she had proof, and even if the guys was trying to scam her, she had the confirmations that the accounts with all of that beautiful cash was there in her name.
- Exhausted, they returned to her hotel and on the way the remaining flags started flying. Her gentleman friend explained that it would be a few days before she would be able to access the accounts because of the laws in the European Union and so he had opened another smaller account that was in both of their names so that she could transfer money into that account for her return plane ticket. Despite her exhaustion - it hadn't occurred to her that she hadn't gotten a return plane ticket, in fact she had never seen a ticket at all with the driver handling all of the arrangements ushering her in and out of the car, walking her to the boarding gate.
- Fidgeting a little, in her words, she asked her friend if he could just transfer enough into the account so that she could buy her return trip and as they pulled up to the hotel, he reminded her about the hold on the accounts, which also now held her $5,000 in cash and so perhaps she would consider calling one of the friends she listed on the application - surely one of her friends would be willing to front their rick friend some cash until it all cleared.
- And that's how we got to the phone call, except the headline was a little misleading because even at this point in the scam, my friend Susan still thought she was a new wealthy woman and when she called asking for help, she actually asked me if I would send money into her new account that she had just set up in Europe so she could buy her return plane ticket.
- And that my friends is how it works.
Who Writes Like This???
What to do when your friend makes this call
Every situation is different, so I will just tell you what I did in this situation.
- I confirmed her location.
- I let her know I was concerned for her safety, but didn't want to overly alarm her for fear that she would get defensive and end contact
- I called and talked to the front desk of the hotel where she was and asked them to get her a room (which I secured directly and let them know I was concerned for her safety and to expect the US Embassy to be in contact soon)
- I called the United States Embassy located in Amsterdam and told them what she had shared with me, gave them her address and phone number - later I learned that this was critical in shutting down the passport scam - which was one of the many ways that she had been victimized.
- Once I knew that an Embassy Official along with some local authorities were on the way, I contacted her to tell her what I had done, and while she was at first really mad at me, she was starting to realize how she had been duped and lost it, crying on the phone until the authorities came to the door.
- It took years to straighten out, I was not charged for the hotel room, she was issued a new passport from the Embassy, her accounts were all closed in the United States and she had to file a fraud case and get another social security number reissued. Several years later, while on a cruise on her honeymoon, she was detained in immigration because having two identities internationally can create a problem in some countries.
- And all of this because she really wanted something that was too good to be true, to really be true.
I am sharing this story, because 10 years later, I still get these kind of scam letters, albeit to my in-box instead of phony CERTIFIED mail and while I routinely disregard these letter, I am reminded that they must be successful if they are continuing - and then I remember Susan, the $5,000 that she voluntarily took out of her account was just the tip of the iceberg to what the thief's ended up with and so I guess that makes it worth it for them.
I am also aware that my friend was never the same again, not only was she embarrassed, and felt ashamed, she was broken. She had been lulled into a scam because she was the perfect victim, vulnerable and desperate and remains so. So much so that it would destroy her for her true name to be revealed - so for all of the nameless victim's out there - how can we shed a light on what is really behind what many of us consider to be a harmless "Hello Dearest One" letter?
Reasons people might fall prey to a scam
In a recent posting, I asked a question about why people might fall prey to the kind of scam letter I referenced in the above article. The posters brought up many interesting points and added to the stories about people they knew, or stories of themselves falling victim. here are a few of the things that were shared about why and how people might fall victim to a scam:
- The victim may not have a good grasp of the language, either because they are newcomers, or have reading challenges and may not understand that the letter is phony;
- people with mental health issues, or other diagnosis that may impair their understanding or comprehension of the letter, and the consequences
- older people who are generally trusting and couldn't believe that theses appeals may be false claims
- someone who is being offered something that they are interested in that they would receive in exchange for a credit card or cashier's checks
I will add more as they come, but the bottom line is that we need to be talking about this and sharing these stories with our friends and family to hopefully put a stop to these scams. I did hear many many stories that ended in hopelessness and sadness. This silent crime has to stop and it is up to us. How will you help stop this?