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Protecting Yourself From Advance-Fee Fraud

Advance-fee fraud involves a target being tricked into advancing a sum of money under the promise that they will receive a significantly larger amount back. This type of fraud is most commonly referred to as a Nigerian letter or 419 fraud, which refers to a section of Chapter 38: Obtaining Property by false pretences of the Nigerian criminal code. These scams began in the 1980s following the decline of the Nigerian economy. University students, who used it as a way to manipulate visiting businessmen, based the scam off of the much older Spanish Prisoner scam, wherein the scammer would tell the victim that a wealthy prisoner wished to share their treasure with them in exchange for money to bribe the guards. The scam evolved in the 1990s to include letters and faxes initiating the scam to primarily utilizing email in the 2000s. While mainly based out of Nigeria, there are imitators in other areas of Africa as well as Europe, North America, Australia and Asia.

How to Spot an Advance-Fee Fraud

Advance-fee frauds typically center on international dealings, most often originating in Nigeria, with the scammer claiming to be a business person, royalty or even a law enforcement agent or political official. The scammer will request what seems to be a small amount of money in order for them to return a much larger amount of money to the victim. They may also claim that the victim has won a lottery or been left an inheritance from an unknown relative, and the scammer needs a “nominal” fee to transfer the money to the victim. They may also request the victim’s bank information or photocopies of their identification, birth certificate or other official documents. While these characteristics may seem easy to spot, advance-fee fraud hinges on playing with the victim’s emotions. The scammer may not only relay a lengthy sob-story, but also attempt to illicit feelings of desperation in the victim to jump on a chance at “free” money. If you receive any communication that even vaguely resembles this, do not respond. If you have any questions about whether or not a communication is suspicious, bring a copy of the letter, email or fax to your local police.

If You Have Been Approached With a Fraudulent Offer

Due to the recent increase of 419 scams, local and federal authorities are working diligently to protect potential victims from falling prey to this scam. If you receive a letter that looks like a scam, you may forward it directly to the FBI or the US Secret Service (contact information can be found below). If you receive an offer to meet a “representative” of the sender locally, you should refer this information to your local police. Any offer or communication that includes a request for a meeting outside of the US should be ignored. 

If You Have Become The Victim of Advance-Fee Fraud

While recovering money following a scam can be difficult and in many cases unlikely, victims who have suffered a substantial monetary loss should report the crime to their local Secret Service field office (contact information can be found below). Because of the large amount of cases of this scam, actual action on your individual case may be a long process. This is due to not only the limited resources of the Secret Service but also the international nature of the crime, which severely limits the US in taking any action. However, reporting financial losses will help the authorities to track the impact and scope of 419 scams and help prevent others from falling victim to this crime in the future.

While recognizing a scam can seem simple enough, the promise of large sums of money is often enough to sway even the most intelligent of people. Keeping yourself informed of the most recent frauds and tricks is the first line of defense against becoming a victim.

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