feature In 1840, more than a century before the internet was invented, an enterprising gentleman named Mick Bell convinced a Mr Monies to hand over cash and clothes to help smuggle what Monies thought would be £20,000 worth of goods out of Sydney's Port Hacking dockyards.
Not surprisingly, that ship, like today's million-dollar lotteries and unclaimed bank accounts, never existed. Yet 168 years later, various forms of the same ruse are hooking more people than ever - including thousands of Australians each month.
So-called Nigerian 419 scams, referred to by law enforcement agencies as "advanced fee fraud", work on a simple proposition: the victim is persuaded to advance a relatively small sum of money to the scammer in the hope of eventually receiving a fortune.
The goal of scammers varies from finding drug runners or "money mules" to simple theft, with some cases dragging on for years. However the common element is that advanced fee fraud targets any weakness in a person's character whether it be greed, gullibility or in the case of those who fall for scams involving fake Russian brides, loneliness.
(Credit: Queensland Police)
Australians send around $36 million to Nigerian scammers each year, according to operations commander of Queensland Police's fraud and corporate crimes group, Brian Hay, who points out that Nigeria is not the only destination for swindled Australian money.
"This only looks at money received within Nigeria," he says. "We're currently conducting research to indicate a more accurate cost to Australia."
The scam's success has seen it replicated in Liberia, Spain, and Italy, says Hay, who describes Nigeria's advance fee fraud industry as "a global enterprise" rather than a backyard operation.
The problem is so large that murders have resulted after some victims have attempted to salvage lost money. Between 1992 and 1999 17 people — mostly Americans - were killed attempting to reclaim stolen cash, according to research by the Australian Institute of Criminology.
On the flip side of the fence, vigilante groups have also emerged to take on scammers head to head. Calling their efforts "scambaiting", vigilantes typically set up fake email accounts in order to attract scammers, with the aim of wasting their time, extracting money from them, or more recently, capturing them on video in compromising positions.
Web sites such as US-based 419 Eater and UK-based Bait a Mugu provide detailed advice on how to catch so-called "419ers". 419 Eater has hosted videos of prized 419 catches. One such video, which has since been taken down, showed two, presumably Nigerian, men head-butting each other in what they believed was a casting scenario for a role in an upcoming action movie.
But anger over the scam has come from both sides of the fence. Responding to renewed interest in such scams' impact on Australians, Nigerian diplomat Sunday Olu Agbi recently told The Sydney Morning Herald that people who sent their money to scammers were "as guilty" as the scammers themselves.
Agbi's comments highlight the problem for law enforcement agencies around the globe. Besides cross-jurisdictional obstacles faced by police, victims are often unwilling to tell authorities their story for fear they have already undertaken something illegal.
Those victims are the ones that get strung along for years, according to Hay.
"What happens is that their name and contact details will go on a suckers list which is traded amongst different groups," he says. "I looked at one example the other day where a gentleman and his family had lost $2.5 million from a scam that started 10 years ago."
"It ended up involving friends and family, but they reckoned that when the story had evolved, they had actually been hit by at least half a dozen different scams along the way," he says.
However Hay said this type of victim did not represent the majority.
"One of the sad things is that one of the biggest groups to take up the scam is seniors. They're often the most financial, they have the most to lose and seniors are really novices when it comes to the online environment. They are usually trusting people," he says.
"Often when people go online, they're denied all sensory perception that form our ancillary defences, so their senses are completely disabled."
Romantic trap Deep, open pockets have also been found in the lonely hearted, an emerging group of victims targeted by scams originating in Eastern Europe or Russia.
Earlier this year Queensland police warned of rapid growth in fraud that used Russian brides and dating Web sites to con victims into becoming money launderers and drug mules.
In an evolution of the Nigerian scam, criminals prey on people registered with dating sites, according to Hay.
"We see a great deal of energy being placed into victimising online dating processes. Not only could [victims] lose their savings, assets and possessions, they lose their self-esteem, get a broken heart and sometimes require medication," he says.
"In addition to that, we know that romance scam victims have been set up to become mules to transport heroin into Australia," Hay said during a special presentation at the AusCERT 2008 security conference earlier this year.
Graham Ingram, general manager of AusCERT, explains that victims have been fooled into laundering money because they believe they are doing a favour for someone they think is a prospective partner, who they met on a dating Web site.
"We have seen cases where the Russian bride has a friend in Melbourne or WA and her friend wants the bride to come over to visit, and is willing to pay for the bride's ticket - but her friend can't transfer the money directly to Russia," said Ingram.
Ingram says that the Russian bride would then ask if the victim would mind if her Australian friend transferred a sizable amount of money into the victim's account. The victim would then transfer the cash to the Russian bride's account so she could buy her ticket to visit.
"People say, 'it can't be a fraud because they are not asking for my money', where in actual fact they are moving money from banking scams," added Ingram.
It's clear that despite increasing awareness of the number and variety of advanced fee fraud scams out there, Australians are still falling for them.
On the next page: Two audio recordings of conversations with real-life scammers.