Nigerian Scam Hits Harvard
The e-mail flooding campus sounds unbelieveable-offering students a chance to earn million of dollars if they join a Nigerian money laundering scheme.
Not surprisingly, government officials are cautioning that the e-mail is only the latest incarnation of a decade-old plot that has had deadly consequences for some of its victims.
The e-mails-supposedly from a high Nigerian official-ask for students' help in laundering $21.5 million out of Nigeria and into a U.S. bank account, offering students a cut of the money in return.
"It looks like a typical Nigerian scheme," said Special Agent Marshall Stone of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)'s Boston field office.
The email is the latest incarnation of a scheme that has persisted on the Internet at least since 1996, and for many years before that in postal mail. The financial crimes division of the U.S. Secret Service says it receives upwards of 100 complaints a day about the Nigerian scheme-commonly known as the 4-1-9 scam, after the section in the Nigerian penal code that deals with financial crimes.
Stone said students should not respond to the e-mails-which have popped up in countries like Russia, England, Germany and New Zealand.
People who respond to the e-mail are then forwarded forged government documents showing the supposed legitimacy of the plan. The documents often include payment plans, bank drafts and government stationary.
The scam, which is dragged out over several months, asks the recipient to pay assorted fees, supposedly to help cover the banking transaction and legal costs. Eventually, the victim is asked to travel to Nigeria or a nearby country to complete the transaction.
Following through on the scheme can be hazardous. Scambusters.org, an Internet watchdog group, says that an American was murdered in Nigeria in 1995 while pursuing a 4-1-9 scam. U.S. Postal Service (USPS) reports show that another victim was confronted by two Nigerians with automatic weapons, and was forced to turn over $4,000 in traveler's checks before receiving permission to leave the country. Another victim lost over $400,000 before reporting the fraud.
The USPS intercepted hundreds of millions of copies of the letter in the 1990s, and continues to intercept copies of the letter on a daily basis, reports show.
Eight out of 10 bags of mail received from Nigeria contain fraudulent letters, Frank Umoski, the USPS operations manager at JFK Airport, said in a press release.
The Central Bank of Nigeria has denied any role, even going so far as to take out full-page ads in The Washington Post and USA Today in 1998 to warn Americans about the scam.
Nigerian police have arrested dozens of people involved in various incarnations of the scheme, and Secret Service agents have been stationed in Nigeria at the U.S. Embassy to help combat the scam.
Anyone who has actually lost money in the scheme should contact the Secret Service at (202) 406-5850, or fax a copy of the fraudulent e-mail to (202) 406-5031.
-Staff writer Garrett M. Graff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.