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Nigerian 419 scammers exploit tsunami tragedy

- Clint Swett

(Wednesday, January 5, 2004)

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"Spammers are like any other business person. They see a trend and strike while the iron is hot," said Brian McWilliams.

New e-mail making the rounds features a plea from a Marco Nula. He claims that his parents were killed by the tsunami in Indonesia and that he is seeking help in getting more than $3 million of his father's funds out of a bank in the Netherlands. If the message sounds familiar, that's because it's nearly identical in tone to another widely spread e-mail from someone in Nigeria. In that e-mail, a beleaguered bank official promises a share of millions of dollars to anyone who will help him get money out of his country. That message is, of course, a scam, and has fleeced enough people that the Federal Trade Commission, the Secret Service and the Better Business Bureau all have devoted Web pages to warning consumers about the issue.

Showing up just a week after the tsunamis ravaged South Asian coastlines, the e-mail shows how opportunistic spammers can be. "Spammers are like any other business person. They see a trend and strike while the iron is hot," said Brian McWilliams, whose 2004 book "Spam Kings" explores the culture of the spam entrepreneurs.

Other examples, he said, included a similar message sent out several years ago from someone claiming to be trying to get a fortune out of Iraq under the nose of Saddam Hussein. Typically such scams persuade people to send a small amount of money to get the ball rolling and then demand more to overcome problems with papers or other bureaucratic tangles. "People feel that if you go a little longer or send more money, you will get your money back," McWilliams said. But that's not the case. One Web site that tracks the Nigerian-style scams estimates that more than $1 billion has been lost by victims. One Silicon Valley couple lost more than $700,000 in the scam last year, according to media reports at the time.

"There are a lot of clever scammers who appeal to the same mind-set: get rich overnight," McWilliams said. So far, there appear to be no bogus e-mails appealing for donations for tsunami victims, said Phyllis Kramer, vice president of Privacy Inc., a company that provides e-mail privacy software and services. "But it wouldn't surprise me if it happened," she said. She cautioned that if people receive an appeal for donations by e-mail, they should ignore it and instead go directly to the Red Cross or other agencies taking donations.

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