Six people were arrested in South Africa over the weekend on suspicion of being involved in the infamous "Nigerian" e-mail and letter fraud.
Four of those detained were Nigerian, one was Cameroonian and the sixth was South African. Police in South Africa believe that the six are part of an international fraud and drug-dealing cartel, sending out thousands of e-mail and letters in an attempt to defraud.
Police seized a large amount of drugs, as well as computer equipment and false identification papers. According to published reports from South Africa, officers from the UK's Scotland Yard were also involved in the operation. A Metropolitan police spokesman was unable to confirm this, however.
The arrests could mark an important breakthrough in the battle against the international scam, which is thought to have defrauded hundreds of millions of dollars from victims. The fraud is also known as the "West African advanced fee fraud" or the "419 fraud" -- 419 being the relevant section of the Nigerian criminal code.
Potential victims receive a letter -- or, more recently, an e-mail -- telling them that the sender is trying to move a large sum of money and offering them a substantial percentage of the cash in return for letting it be deposited into their bank account.
Often the perpetrators claim that the Nigerian government is paying out this money in return for a completed contract, while other versions claim to involve insurance payouts after airplane crashes.
People who express an interest are then told that they must first hand over an amount of money to cover expenses such as banking fees and administrative costs. These "advanced fees" often cost a bundle; there are cases where U.S. victims have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Nigerian government has set up a unit in London to fight the fraud, but many people are still being taken in.
One problem is that many victims don't report that they have been defrauded, either through embarrassment or because they aren't sure who to contact.
Roland Perry, vice chairman of the Internet Crime Forum, said last month that it isn't clear which law enforcement body people should contact with cybercrime complaints.
"Where do you go if you get a Nigerian e-mail?" asked Perry. "Do you report it to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the Metropolitan Police, the Fraud Squad, the National High-Tech Crime Unit or your local police? If you take one of these e-mails to your local police, what is the chap behind the desk supposed to do with it?"
The Metropolitan Police, in conjunction with the Specialist Crime Operational Command Unit, has set up a Web page containing advice about the West African advanced fee fraud.
Those who have fallen victim to the fraud are encouraged to contact the Specialist Crime OCU Fraud Squad by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.