IF IT seems like one of the most ridiculous scams in the history of criminal enterprise, that’s because it is.
But the phenomenon of the e-mail from Africa promising untold riches in return for your bank account details has got the UK’s elite crimefighters worried.
The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) has decided to wage war on the artless fraudsters behind the con because scores of people every year are falling for it and the total losses are running into millions of pounds.
Scotland on Sunday can reveal that a man from Fife is one of the most recent victims, losing 7,000. It has emerged that another Briton travelled to Africa to claim his loot and ended up being beaten and tortured by his "business partners".
Many people will already be familiar with the routine: an unsolicited e-mail or fax arrives from a west African country, typically purporting to come from a government official or the family of a deposed dictator. The sender claims to have access to millions of pounds but can’t get it out of the country. In return for providing details of your bank account - so the money can be smuggled out - you get to keep a few million.
NCIS has now revealed that 150 Britons were stung last year alone, to the tune of 8.4m, an average loss of 56,675.
But police chiefs fear the amount reported to them is just a fraction of the real losses sustained by people tempted by "get rich quick" proposals, and too embarrassed to admit they had been conned.
"I think a lot of people have seen these stories as a bit of a joke in the past. They delete the e-mails they get and laugh about the other people who end up getting conned by them," a source within NCIS said.
"But it is a massive problem, one that is costing the country millions of pounds a year. We have been on to this for a while, but it is growing very fast, mainly through the internet. It looks like the police will now be able to spend the time trying to break up these networks, rather than just monitoring what they’re doing."
Officers based at a national unit in London will take responsibility for following the internet "paper trail", tracking down the source of the most widely circulated e-mails and travelling to Africa to locate the people involved.
"People will sit in internet cafes in Lagos and places like that, sending out thousands of e-mails, most of which are deleted immediately," an NCIS spokesman said. "But they know that about 1% of people will respond, and that is enough for them to profit."
Police will work closely with internet service providers to determine who is sending the bulk e-mails. They will also try to reel in the worst offenders, replying to their messages using fake identification and maintaining contact throughout the bogus deal until they can arrange a final meeting, where the fraudsters can be arrested.
The advance fee frauds are labelled "419" scams after the relevant article of the penal code in Nigeria, where most of the e-mails originate. NCIS maintains a gallery of bogus proposals, ranging from dependants of dead African leaders such as Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire and Laurent Kabila of the Congo, to Nigerian civil servants attempting to smuggle out millions creamed off their cancelled Miss World contest.
Scotland on Sunday answered a number of e-mails, all littered with spelling mistakes and demands for complete confidentiality, and was immediately asked to provide personal details including fax and telephone numbers and copies of the first four pages of "an international passport".
A man claiming to be Johnston Ndiovu, the son of a murdered Zimbabwean farmer, sent a telephone number in Holland, where he said he was living as an asylum seeker. He maintained that Dutch laws on asylum prevented him gaining access to the $12.5m he said his father had left at a security company.
"What I really need you to do is to send me your full name and details and as soon as I have that we can change the ownership of the consignment to your name," said ‘Ndiovu’. "We can do this within seven days. All you have to do is to make this confidential between you and I."
‘Ndiovu’ became agitated when his proposed victim said he wanted to seek his wife’s advice. "I just want you alone to know. You know women, sometimes they don’t keep things secret," he said.
The following day, ‘Ndiovu’ sent an official-looking form authorising the change of ownership from his name.
Jim Smith, who is in charge of Fife Police's efforts to stamp out the 419 scam, said the problem had mushroomed as more people had begun using the internet. "I am aware of one person who lost 7,000. He simply had to travel to the Post Office to be fleeced," he said.
"There certainly seems to be quite a jump in the number of e-mails going around. It’s a very simple and very effective means of communication and I think that is what attracts these criminals."
THE NET LOSERS
THE advance fee fraud has been a lucrative method of stealing money from gullible punters for more than 30 years, but the internet boom has made it much more effective.
Criminal gangs, mainly based in West Africa, used to concentrate their approaches on bulk mail-shots and fax deliveries, and police reported that more than 1.4 million such letters were withdrawn from the postal system in the three years up to 2001.
Now e-mails have provided the ideal opportunity to expand the business around the world. The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), which set up its own West African crime unit to deal with the burgeoning amount of criminal activity targeted at Britain from the region, estimates that millions of the fraudulent e-mails - like those received by Scotland on Sunday, right - arrive every year from countries including Nigeria, Gabon, South Africa and Botswana.
An NCIS spokesman said: "There is an increasing trend for advanced fee fraud correspondence to be received via e-mail. This makes discovery more difficult and leads to an increase in the number of people being defrauded."
The boom in internet fraud has also been accompanied by a subtle change in tactics. While criminals were once happy to just steal cash, they are now increasingly prepared to steal their identities as well.