Reality is the working paradox that defies control

What happens if you claim your prize?

Liam Clarke - The Sunday Times

The internet is full of scams designed to fool the gullible and the greedy. Liam Clarke finds out just how much you can actually lose if you fall for one

Frank Harvey from Pennsylvania, a frequent visitor to Ireland, had a pleasant surprise last July. He won £250,950 (€370,659) in the Irish Heritage Lottery based in Armagh.
All he had to do was send his details to a claims agency and the money would be his. “You are not expected to make any payment whatsoever,” an e-mail from Florinda Weber, the lottery co-ordinator, explained. “All applicable taxes are to be paid on your behalf. Let me offer my heartfelt congratulations.”

Naturally it was too good to be true. There was no such thing as the Irish Heritage Lottery, Harvey had never bought a ticket in it and the address it gave as its headquarters was a former old people’s home now used as offices by the Armagh and Dungannon Social Services Trust. The lottery was a 419 advance-fee fraud, named after the section that prohibits it in the Nigerian penal code.

It is one of two bogus Irish lotteries that have been used to extract money from victims as far away as Malaysia, India and Japan. The other is “Irish National Lottery Euromillions” and gives an address in Sligo.

Harvey paid nothing but decided to “bait” the scammer by claiming his winnings. What would happen, he wondered, if he played along? Several e-mails later Weber, known as a “catcher” in scammer speak, had been replaced by Conrad Fitzroy, who gave Harvey prime-rate British numbers to call and suggested he pay £408 in “consultants’ fees” via Western Union to Holland to verify his winnings.

The payment was to be made to a woman called Claudia Roberts, the name of an entirely uninvolved German pop star that was being used by the scammers. So where would it have ended if he took the advice? And if he had fallen victim to the scam, would he have ever recovered his money?

IRISH e-mailers seldom fall for fake lotteries based in Ireland, but Superintendent Eugene Gallagher of the Garda Fraud Squad says they have been tricked by sham Spanish lotteries and bogus inheritances from Africa. Gallagher remembers stopping a Cork businessman travelling to Lagos to deliver tens of thousands of pounds that he thought would result in huge sums held in a bank account being transferred to him.

Only last year a Northern Ireland businessman was defrauded of £250,000 after a series of meetings with Nigerian 419 scammers in London and Amsterdam who had offered him an opportunity to launder money. “Many people don’t report it, they are too embarrassed,” Gallagher said.

A middle-aged Japanese woman transferred €74,000 into an account in AIB, Blanchardstown, to help a man she had met on a dating website with a business deal. He had sent her flowers and offered to marry her. They would retire to the Maldives once they were both millionaires.

Most losers are smaller fry. Last month a Malaysian paid €700 to a bogus Irish lottery. “Can you track down and capture the villain behind this? I want my money back,” he asked the Internet Fraud Advisory Group in Wales, a voluntary body that helps victims.

Frank Engelsman, a former banking security expert who now runs an investigation agency called Ultrascan in Amsterdam, is an expert in 419 scams. He has details of thousands of scammers and works with police and intelligence services.

“If you play the game you are sucked dry, and you don’t have to be stupid,” he said. “If you are stupid, you won’t be taken in, you won’t have the imagination.”

Apart from lotteries, other scams include money said to be held in banks in Africa or the Far East that have to be transferred to your bank account. After months or even years of making payments, Engelsman says the victims are often lured to Amsterdam, Madrid or London, the three European cities most favoured by scammers.
In Amsterdam a victim might be picked up by limousine and brought by expensively suited business types to a location they are told is a bank or tax office. One that Dutch police say has been used is Triport 1, part of the World Meeting Centre at Schiphol airport where offices can be hired for €200 a day.
The advantage, according to Rene van der Wouw of the Amsterdam fraud squad, is that “there is a big advertisement outside the office building which says ING and ABN Amro bank, both of which have offices on the ground floor. So you think you are entering a bank building”.

Paul, a mature student from Scotland, had been sucked dry for months before being lured to such a meeting. He was due to pay the last €10,000 needed to free up tens of millions being transferred to him by a bank official in Ghana who wanted to split the proceeds.

“It was all made out very convincingly,” he said. “His office had four men and a woman in it. They counted my money, which I had borrowed from my mum, and said it would cover the transportation costs. Then a case was opened and there seemed to be millions of dollars staring me in the face, in $100 bills.”

Each bill was stamped “SECURITY” in large red letters, a precaution the increasingly tetchy and intimidating “Ghanaian bankers” assured him was necessary when transporting large sums of money around the world. Inside the trunk was a chemical to erase the markings and make it legal tender but, in yet another unforeseen setback, most of it had dried up so only two notes could be cleaned.

In what Paul now realises was a simple sleight of hand, a scammer rubbed one note with water and switched it for a real $100 bill. The scammers said £8,000 (€11,800) was needed to buy more chemicals to wash the whole $30m in the trunk and pay “customs” their fees.

“When I flew home the stress of this was terrible,” Paul recalls. “It was a secret from everybody. My student loan was gone, my credit cards were drained, I owed the bank. I couldn’t raise any more cash so I had to stop.” He had lost nearly €30,000.

Looking back he feels a fool. Like a compulsive gambler, he kept on paying in the hope it would come right in the end and allow him to repay all the friends from whom he had borrowed.

Even then the scammers proposed he sell his car to pay them and when he told them he knew he had been conned, they sent him an e-mail advising him to defraud someone else if he wanted his money back.

Victims can expect such heartlessness. In documents obtained by Engelsman outlining how to carry out scams, beginners are told to be prepared for “mugus” (victims) to go bankrupt or even commit suicide. The shame of being exposed in some countries, such as Japan, can be used to blackmail “mugus” for monthly hush money.

All over Amsterdam are buildings where such scams are carried out, often without the knowledge of the management. One, according to Engelsman and van de Wouw, is at 100 Eeftinck in the southeast of the city.

“On that street are several office buildings with an internet cafe and a phone company for placing calls abroad,” said van der Wouw. “There are five or six similar office buildings that have been used to meet victims.”

Last week, a sign stuck to the inside of the glass beside the front door of one building read “tax office”. “It’s a fake,” said van de Wouw. “People are brought to pay scammers, thinking it is taxes. This is big business. The take runs into several hundred million a year worldwide. In Holland alone there are several hundred West Africans involved, mainly from the Ibo tribe.”

Fake job offers are another increasingly common scam, which John Weston, an internet fraud adviser, says has caught a number of people in Ireland recently. They come from a foreign company, typically in West Africa or the Far East. Victims are asked to receive a cheque, deduct 10%-20% as commission and forward the rest by Western Union. Sometimes the scammers launder money obtained from victims in other frauds. In some cases the cheque appears in the victim’s bank account and bounces a few weeks later.

FEW victims ever get their money back from scams, but the authorities are trying to clamp down on fraudsters.

Earlier this year, Nnamdi Chizuba Anisiobi, an alleged scammer with connections in Britain and Ireland, was arrested by Dutch police and the American secret service in Amsterdam. He is now being held on American extradition warrants. They allege he extracted huge sums from at least 40 people.

Dutch police say one of the alleged victims was Irish and that other people in Britain and Ireland may have been taken in by scams allegedly operated by Anisiobi and an accomplice in England. One swindle of which he is accused involves posing as Abdul Rahman, a fictitious Brunei millionaire who is dying of cancer and wants help to distribute $35m to good causes.

About $2m has been recovered and, if a prosecution is successful, some of this may be used to compensate victims. In Nigeria last year the government jailed two fraudsters for 37 years and forced them to repay $150m to victims of a scam that brought down Banco Noroeste in Brazil.

George Clydesdale, a former Police Service of Northern Ireland fraud squad officer who investigated the Northern Ireland businessman who lost £250,000 in Amsterdam and London, says the scammers evaded arrest, despite an attempted police sting operation at a hotel at Heathrow airport.

Victims who have travelled to Nigeria to recover money have been murdered or kidnapped and ransomed. Clydesdale said: “The best advice is don’t engage with these people. They will appeal to your greed, they will appeal to your sense of right and wrong and tell you the money will go to terrorists if you don’t act. They will play on your prejudices and use strong-arm tactics if they need to. They are not stupid and they are well organised.

“Delete the e-mails, burn the letters, put down the phone on them. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

Harvey’s scammer doesn’t agree. “We urge you to act with immediate effect,” he wrote last week. Not this time.

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