I don't know how often former heads of foreign states-in desperate need of assistance and nowhere else to turn-contact you for help, but it happens to me very infrequently.
So, imagine my surprise that day back in March when Charles Taylor, the former embattled president of Liberia, contacted me. Of all the people around the world he could have asked for help, he turned to little ol' me in his time of need. Well, of course, I was honored. I didn't even realize he knew me.
And, man, was Taylor ever in a pickle.
Using an e-mail address of a fellow named Jeftrey Good-must be a close friend of Taylor's-the former Liberian leader noted how he had recently been "forced to resign as the president of Liberia in West-Africa by the United Nations / international communities which was spearheaded by the American president, Mr. George-Bush." In exile in Calabar, Nigeria, Taylor told me he had $200 million that he needed to get into a foreign bank account in the worst way.
Evidently, being the Liberian president is highly lucrative. If indeed he earned that money while president, that comes to $33 million for each year of his six-year reign. In any case, he said the money is his "future hope."
"I am being monitored and I do not want to take chances," Taylor explained. "For your information, my communication and movements are under strict surveillance." That must be why he's using Jeftrey Good's e-mail account. Taylor instructed me to communicate with him through his attorney and "close confidant," Dennis George, and he kindly gave me George's e-mail address. He said his lawyer "would be able to establish an investment with your assistance on my behalf until I come out of my travail and tormentors."
"Travail"? "Tormentors"? Sounded like Taylor was in quite a spot. I like to think I'm the kind of guy who lends a hand when someone truly needs it. But this Charles Taylor fellow-I don't know-he was indicted for horrible atrocities last year by a special United Nations war-crimes court, which he neglected to mention in his e-mail to me.
Taylor was charged with arming the Revolutionary United Front, a paramilitary rebel group that, at the time, was engaged in a nasty, ongoing skirmish with the government of neighboring Sierra Leone. Apparently, the U.N. court judges determined that Taylor must have been aware that the beneficiaries of his largess were going about their business in rather violent ways-allegedly killing, mutilating, raping and kidnapping tens of thousands of people as they battled the government for control of Sierra Leone and its coveted diamond mines. Rumor has it, these thugs chopped off arms, legs, noses and breasts of lots of people, including children.
Maybe I shouldn't be so quick to do business with a character carrying this sort of unsavory baggage.
Then again, Taylor offered me 40 percent of the $200 million. That $80 million could come in handy. And he seems awfully polite: "I wait patiently for your response. Yours truly. Charles Taylor. Ex-president of Liberia."
Truth be told, the guy attempting to pass himself off as Charles Taylor isn't the only person from Africa who's contacted me in the past few months. Since March, I've saved 29 e-mails from people claiming to be in desperate straits in exotic locales such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Benin, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Tunisia, South Africa, Ghana, Angola, Zambia and Nigeria, not to mention the United Arab Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula. (Please see sidebar, "Friends in need.")
The creative stories vary in detail, but they each involve the need to move lots of money into a foreign account, which the e-mail writers claim they can't do themselves, for various reasons. Each one promises me a handsome sum in exchange for my assistance.
Afoot here is foul play-illegal scams intended to separate e-mail recipients, made gullible by visions of vast riches, from their money. It's called a 419 scam, named for the section in the Nigerian criminal code for this sort of financial malfeasance. It's a rather widespread phenomenon-chances are, the former president of Liberia has requested your help, too.
It's been going on since the early 1980s, says Charles Pascale, the Virginia-based coordinator of the 419 Coalition, an organization that operates an online clearinghouse of information on 419 scams "so that others looking into 419 matters would not have to start from scratch in their research."
When told of the Charles Taylor e-mail, Pascale forwarded to me a small sampling of variations on the "Taylor 419" that he had accumulated. Taylor 419 is a kind of "Classic 419," Pascale said, a relatively simple request to move money into a foreign account. There's also "Black Currency," "Oil Scam 419," "Lottery 419," "Charitable Organization 419," "Cashier's Check 419," "Real Estate 419," "Extortion 419" and "Goods and Services 419," which includes "eAuction 419."
They're all different means to the same end: to get the victim to voluntary send the 419er money. Once the victim is hooked by the initial solicitation, he or she is asked to pay some sort of advance fee-a "transfer tax" or a "performance bond," for example, or asked to refund change on a phony check sent to the victim by the 419er. Inevitably, "complications" arise, and the victim, who by this time has likely reached a point of no return, is asked to pay still more unforeseen fees. All this is why the scam is also called "advance-fee fraud." Common misconceptions are that victims are always asked to do something illegal or unethical-although there are some cases of that-and that 419ers do their thing by conning a victim out of his or her banking information and then bleeding the account dry.
The scam was started by the Nigerians, and to this day it's still mostly the Nigerians who are doing it, although copycat opportunists from other African nations have at times gotten in on the act. Despite international efforts to police 419 scams, only a handful of Nigerians have ever been convicted, and very little money has been recovered. (Please see sidebar, "Exercise in futility.")
In the beginning, victims received scam letters through the U.S. mail. When the Postal Service cracked down and began intercepting mail postmarked in Nigeria, the "419ers," as they're called, started using the fax machine, and then e-mail.
"I can still remember back in 1997 or so," Pascale said, "when the No. 2 man of the Joint West African Fraud Task Force and I were discussing the inevitable move of the 419ers from letter and fax to e-mail. We knew, of course, that would be an awful mess."
However, Pascale said the move to e-mail also presented an opportunity. "At the time, counter-419ers had the chance to get a jump on the scammers, as the counter-419ers had the technology before the 419ers did," he said. "The good guys had a window of opportunity to put systems in place to contain the spread of 419 via the web and e-mail, but the 419ers caught up and overwhelmed any potential countermeasures before they could be put in place. Our side simply was unable to move fast enough to capitalize on the window of opportunity available to it."
One high-profile victim was Chula Vista's own James Adler, owner of a Tijuana furniture store, who received a 419 solicitation back in the early 1990s. Adler agreed to set up a foreign account, where the 419ers would deposit $130 million ostensibly stolen from a previous Nigerian regime. Adler's take was to be $60 million. Several years and numerous trips to meet with government and banking officials in Nigeria later, Adler was out more than $5 million. He took the case to court, but a Superior Court judge, backed by an appeals court, ruled that since the original solicitation was, on its face, proposing a criminal transaction, and since Adler knowingly agreed to it, his hands were "unclean." He got nothing.
However, the Adler case was significant in that it was the first time a court determined that some Nigerian government officials were in on the scam.
I told Pascale that the e-mails I've received are obviously the work of flimflam men, and I asked him how people so easily allow themselves to be fooled. He seemed to take umbrage at the implication that one must be a dimwitted boob to fall prey to the 419. Victims, usually successful and well-educated, do their due diligence, he said, and still get ripped off.
"Targets will do things like get the number of the organization their contact supposedly works for-say the Central Bank of Nigeria-from directory assistance, call the number, ask for their contact by name, get put through to him by the switchboard and discuss the deal," Pascale said. "Sometimes they will fly to Nigeria and meet with their contacts in bona fide Nigerian government offices-this was also testified to before Congress by U.S. government officials.
"What happens," he said, "is that everything they check out checks out, so the targets send the money. Then after the 419ers have bled the target dry, then all of a sudden-poof-nothing checks out. So, in short, the 419ers are excellent in convincing their targets of the viability of the deal. After all, they are arguably the best conmen in the world."
But Robert Heyer, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service's San Diego field office, said there's something else at play.
"This type of fraud is successful, I think, because it kind of operates on a piece of human nature that we don't always like to recognize that we have, and that's greed," Heyer said. "If you fall victim to this, you are kind of looking to get something for nothing."