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
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
Brian Hay (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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.
Graham Ingran (Credit: ZDNet.com.au)
"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 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
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
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
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
"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,"
Marcel never called us back after our initial enquiry.
You win, you lose: the lottery scam
Similar to next-of-kin advanced fee fraud scams, lottery scams
rely on victims believing it's their lucky day.
In this recording by security firm MessageLabs' researcher Mark Sunner, would-be
victim "Alistair Ben" has responded to an email from a person
claiming to be Pepsi's promotions manager, who advised him he had
won €1.5 million from Pepsi's annual award.
Listen to MessageLabs chat with an alleged scammer
Alistair Ben was asked to give his name and quote a reference
number, which rather than being used to authenticate the caller,
was likely used to identify the sender. The promotions manager who
answered the call claimed to be Pepsi promotions manager, Michael
After the confirmation process McAllister warned Ben: "Please be informed that all winners of this promotion are liable
to pay for the cheques to have this delivered to their location,"
"How much is that?" asked Ben.
With some uncertainty, McAllister said it would be around €300. "How do I pay that?" asked Ben.
"When you contact the Universal Experts [courier], they are
going to tell you how to pay it. If you give me a call in the next
15 to 20 minutes, I can tell you what to do, and exactly how much
to pay," said McAllister.
When Ben called back, McAllister confirmed the total charge
for the courier would be £221 to be paid via Western Union to
a "Kenneth Peterson" of 151 Canada Sq, Canary Wharf, London
Nearing the end of the conversation, McAllister took the
opportunity move to the next stage of the scam by obtaining the
caller's home address.
"Just try to make the payment at Western Union today. Do not
forget to send me your complete mailing address," he told Ben.