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American foils attempted Nigerian 419 scam


- Tyler Christensen

(Tuesday, March 8, 2005)

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[ What started as a legitimate roommate search by Brandon Mikkelsen turned out to be an Internet scam that left Mikkelsen holding a counterfeit cashier's check. The check looks real, but indeed was a phony that originated in Nigeria. Mikkelsen fortunately didn't lose any money on the deal. ]


Brandon Mikkelsen displays the counterfeit cashier's chec [ Photo Left: Brandon Mikkelsen displays the counterfeit cashier's check ]
Brandon Mikkelsen went online to find a roommate and became the target of a counterfeit cashier's-check scam. Unfortunately, it's a familiar story - but because Mikkelsen listened to his intuition when things didn't seem to be adding up, this story has a happy ending. The trouble began when Mikkelsen, 21, turned to the Internet to find a roommate for the four-bedroom, three-bath house he shares with two University of Montana students. He posted a profile on Roommates.com and soon received an e-mail from someone named - or going by the name of - Alexandra Andersen, or "Lex." Lex claimed to be a Swedish native living in Nigeria, a student at the University of Lagos trying to transfer to the university in Missoula.

Lex didn't ask for more information about the basement room, which rented for $295 a month, but almost immediately asked to secure it for three months. He said his "sponsor" in the United Kingdom would send Mikkelsen a cashier's check as soon as Mikkelsen provided his full name and mailing address.

Hmm ...

Instead of providing the information, Mikkelsen e-mailed Lex with some questions of his own. "I would actually like to talk to you and let you know details and answer any questions that you may have about the place and myself before you decide to send me money," Mikkelsen wrote.

Thus began a back-and-forth telephone and e-mail conversation in which Lex repeatedly told Mikkelsen that he would like to move to Missoula as quickly as possible. Satisfied that Lex was sincere, Mikkelsen gave his name and address and asked when he planned to move in. Lex said he would arrive Feb. 18. Again, Mikkelsen paused. The next university term doesn't start until this fall. So why the hurry to move? "Little things were clicking in my head that kind of tipped me off," he said. Then Lex sent Mikkelsen another e-mail detailing how his "sponsor" would be sending a check for $3,500, from which Mikkelsen was to deduct three months' worth of rent, or $885. He could wire the rest of the money - $2,615 - back to Lex later.

To Mikkelsen, this arrangement sounded fine. When the the check arrived in the mail - in a plain brown envelope with no return address - Mikkelsen cashed it at the Southside branch of U.S. Bank. Then Lex e-mailed surprisingly detailed instructions on how to wire money to Nigeria - to an accountant named Charles Osuji. "I was like, hmm, has he done this before?" Mikkelsen asked himself. Well, Mikkelsen said he'd send the money just as soon as the check cleared. Lex again pushed him to send the money now, but Mikkelsen didn't budge. "I hope you understand about me waiting just a couple of days for the check to go through the bank," Mikkelsen wrote in another e-mail to Lex. "I trust you and everything, but it is always better to be safe than sorry."

Mikkelsen also asked him for the check's origination information so he could verify it. But Lex's replies didn't provide any information he could use to verify the check - he only wanted to know when the money would arrive. Mikkelsen's guard was up by now. Friends showed him an Associated Press story about $25,000 in fake money orders recently received by banks in Kalispell. He began searching the Web for information about fraud and discovered that a lot of phony cashier's checks are coming from scam artists operating out of Nigeria and other countries outside the United States. Victims are told to cash fake cashier's checks and send a portion back to the scammer.

By this time, Mikkelsen had waited over two weeks for the cashier's check to clear. He decided to go to Cathy Trahan, sales and service manager of U.S. Bank's Southside branch. Trahan immediately suspected the check wasn't legitimate. "I had been presented with a similar check a few days prior to this one," Trahan said. After a quick call to the Bank of Frankewing in Tennessee - the bank the check was drawn off of - she was able to verify that the check was indeed a counterfeit. She was told that the account and the person who signed it don't exist.

"In Brandon's case, he was smart not to wire the money," Trahan said. "But a lot of people will wire the money and then check later on." It used to be that a cashier's check was as good as cash, and unfortunately a lot of people think that this is still true, Trahan said. The reality is that if a cashier's check is found to be fake, the person who cashed it is required to return the money. Trahan said Mikkelsen's insistence on waiting for the check to clear helped him escape a scheme that claims victims on a daily basis. "That is one of the most common frauds that we see," she said.

But crooks are constantly finding new ways to deceive people, especially older people who tend to be more trusting and may be less familiar with the Internet, Trahan said. Her advice: When in doubt, check it out. If she bought a car costing $8,000, for instance, she wouldn't write the dealer a check for $10,000 and ask him to return the rest. "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is," Trahan said. Anyone can call the bank that a cashier's check is drawn off and ask to verify the funds, she added. Investigate any doubts and go to financial institutions for help - banks exist to protect their customers' money, she said, and they have ways of checking into potentially fraudulent claims. "To Brandon this was foreign, to me this was an everyday occurrence," Trahan said.

Last Tuesday, Mikkelsen learned that the $3,500 he thought he had is now gone for good, debited from his account. He sent Lex a final e-mail saying that he would turn him in to the authorities, but he has yet to do so - and he probably won't. It would just be a waste of time and saddle the police with more paperwork, Mikkelsen said. "There's really nothing they can do," he said. "It's not like the United States can go over to Nigeria and arrest him."

Nevertheless, Mikkelsen wants others to know about his experience so they can be on guard against similar scams. Amazingly, while he was dealing with Lex, Mikkelsen was approached by another person in Nigeria looking to make a similar deal. He's afraid western Montana is becoming a target area for Internet-savvy cheats, and he doesn't want anyone to fall for the swindle. "Just be cautious," Mikkelsen said. "Just because we live in Missoula doesn't mean things like this don't happen to us, especially on the Internet. "I'm usually fairly smart about these sort of things and he almost got me."

Related Links:- 
Nigerian 419 Scam News/Warning
The 419 Coalition Website

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