My dead uncle and a Spanish 419er
Email and the internet have become synonymous with 419 scams, but fraudsters still rely on old methods to reach victims. A ZDNet.com.au reader in Sydney received such a letter that had been date-stamped by Spain's postal service in Valencia on 4 August 2008.
The letter was a reminder of the 1990's when Australia's postal system had come under heavy assault from advance fee fraud letter senders, which mostly used fake stamps to reach victims. During a three-month period in 1998 Australia Post intercepted 4.5 tonnes or 1.8 million letters that arrived with fake stamps, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology.
The letter, seen by ZDNet.com.au, purported to have been sent by Spanish attorney Esteban P. Marcel, who claimed to have tracked down the last living relative of his deceased client, who had left an estate worth €2.75 million; supposedly the dead client and the would-be victim shared the same surname.
"The bank has issued me a notice to contact the next of kin," Marcel wrote, "or the account will be declared unserviceable and the fund diverted to the bank treasury."
ZDNet.com.au contacted Marcel using the Spanish contact telephone number on the letter. To proceed, Marcel first asked us to quote the reference number on the letter, which we did.
Listen to ZDNet.com.au's conversation with a real-life scammer
"Alright, thank you very much," said Marcel politely. "First of all, I must say many thanks for your patience and your call."
If we cooperated with Marcel, he said, we would evenly share 80 per cent of the €2.75 million, while 20 per cent would be "shared among charity organisations".
"Right, so that is why I have sent you this letter," Marcel said, "because if the fund is declared not serviceable, it means the funds now belong to the government. It's a kind of an unclaimed fund," he reassured us.
Marcel wanted our phone and fax details which he said would be used to present an official application to the bank. The bank, he said, would contact us later that day.
"And when they [the bank] contact you they will require some documents from you. And your duty is to let me know if the bank contacts you — you have to let me know what the bank said and the kind of documents they require from you," said Marcel.
After being prodded about what documents would be required to submit, Marcel said we would need to provide an "exchange of ownership certificate" which, it turned out, we wouldn't need anyway.
"Any document that they demand from you, just let me know, and I will make it up here and I will get it to them. So I, ah, ah, they might call you ... After you talk to them, just give me a call and let me know what they said."
We were also assured that by cooperating we would not be engaging in anything illegal.
"I am a family of five. I have four kids. If this was a project I knew that I couldn't accomplish, I wouldn't try it. I respect myself as an attorney and I know the law. And I know what I would do to make things legal before the eyes of the government and before the eyes of the government of Australia," the alleged scammer said.
And how did Marcel find the mailing address of M. Smith, whose home address had not been listed in the phone directory? "Oh, I found it through the Australian business directory," he said.
Marcel never called us back after our initial enquiry.