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International Scams Seek to Steal Your Dollars

Attempts to take your money from afar are as old as the Barbary Pirates who roamed the seas in the 1700s and as new as the e-mail messages waiting in your inbox every morning.

The global economy and the Internet combine to bring residents of the world together in new ways. While that often leads to positive experiences, it also makes it more likely that Americans will encounter international con artists on the Internet or while traveling for business or pleasure.

"As long as there is an opportunity and people are vulnerable or even just naïve, they will be targets," says Barry Thompson, managing partner of The Thompson Consulting Group, LLC, Oswego, N.Y.

Thompson travels across the country giving lectures to businesses and consumers seeking to learn how to recognize and foil fraud.

Nigerian letters evolve

Thompson uses Nigerian letter scams as an example of how international fraud operates. Often called "419" scams after the related section of Nigerian law, these scams promise that the participant will receive something of value in return for sending cash in advance.

In the 1700s, the Barbary Pirates used a version of this scheme to tell the families of Americans traveling in Africa that their loved one had been kidnapped but would return safely if a ransom was paid. The catch was that the kidnapping had never occurred, but the family didn't learn that until the traveler returned and was reunited with his family, often months or even years after the funds had been sent.

Vulnerable or naïve people often are targets.

Today, Nigerian letters typically arrive via an e-mail message or U.S. mail letter claiming that a reputable authority figure in Nigeria or another African nation needs help transferring millions of dollars to U.S. accounts.

If the member who receives the message agrees to help, he or she is promised a percentage of those funds. But first, the member must send some sort of advance fee to cover the costs of the transaction. The sender typically continues to develop reasons to charge new fees until the member is broke or wises up. When the member stops paying fees, the sender disappears.

Nigerian letter scams often reflect current events, such as plane crashes or terrorist attacks. In this twist, the letter may claim that an heir to a person killed in the event needs an American's help to collect the money.

Gaining credibility

Misspellings, clumsy wording, or poor grammar were once part of appeals from international con artists. That has changed as international gangs with the expertise and education to craft more believable messages have gained prominence.

Wearing sneakers "screams that you are American."

Thompson notes that the Russian Mafia is often behind international scams. This gang of criminals draws on the talents of KGB agents and others who were suddenly unemployed when the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1990s.

Distance alone once would have meant that American consumers were safe at home from these con artists, but now international criminals often deliver their appeals over the Internet, by telephone, or by fax machine.

For example, they may use "phishing" e-mail messages that appear to be from your credit union to try to persuade you to submit valuable personal information, such as account numbers or Social Security numbers that can be used in fraud or identity theft. Don't bite. The people at your credit union never would ask you for this type of information by e-mail or by phone—they already have it on file.

These con artists also may create fake Web sites to get you to download information that also downloads a program that captures your personal information, or use "social engineering" to make you believe that you can safely share personal information.

Heartbreak scenarios

The Internet also makes it possible for these criminals to conduct dating scams, which Thompson views as the most contemptible form of fraud.

International criminals often deliver their appeals over the Internet, by telephone, or by fax.

"They are going to make money from someone's pain," Thompson says.

International con artists often snare lovelorn Americans through online dating sites. Once the American's interest is piqued, his or her online correspondent claims to have a sudden need for funds, often due to a personal tragedy, illness, or injury.

Other common scenarios used to conduct international fraud by U.S. mail or e-mail include:

  • Inheritance scams promising a substantial legacy from a long-lost relative in exchange for payment of fees up front.
  • Employment scams offering a work permit for a highly paid job abroad in exchange for substantial fees paid in advance. In some cases, applicants may be responding to ads posted online, or targeted as a result of a résumé that the applicant posted online.
  • Online auction scams involving overpayment for the purchase of an item offered online at an auction site such as eBay. After refunding the amount of the overpayment and perhaps even sending the item to the purchaser, the seller discovers that the international money order used for payment was a fraud.
    Americans are targets when traveling abroad.
  • Lottery scams using e-mail or U.S. mail to notify recipients that they have won the Spanish lottery, but must pay fees before they can collect. Once they pay the fees, they discover the truth: Winners of the Spanish lottery must be Spanish residents who purchased tickets in Spain. Lotteries held in other countries also may be used in this scam.

Travelers beware

As residents of the world's richest country, Americans automatically become targets when traveling abroad. Thompson advises adopting the dress and customs of the host country to avoid being targeted. It's especially important to give up wearing sneakers.

"If you step on the streets of Europe, you'll see that people don't wear them," Thompson says. "It screams that you are an American."

The second rule is to avoid being tempted by greed into a "deal" on antiquities or other items.

"If someone is offering to charge you almost nothing for something that you know would be quite valuable in the U.S., check it out first," Thompson says. It's likely to be a fake.

Travelers who were persuaded to visit an overseas country to check out a "business opportunity" must be especially vigilant. Business people traveling to countries such as Nigeria on these scams have been assaulted and even killed as part of deals that ranged in size from thousands to millions of dollars.

Nigerian letters typically arrive via e-mail messages.

When travelers are approached by a con artist—or after they learn they are fraud victims—Thompson says they immediately should contact the nearest U.S. embassy for information and assistance.

Avoiding temptation

Thompson notes that international con artists deliberately craft appeals that seem believable, making it easy for the victim's greed to overcome common sense.

"Everybody is tempted once in a while," Thompson says. "That's why people buy lottery tickets despite astronomical odds against winning."

When tempted by something that seems too good to be true, Thompson advises taking a deep breath and asking questions of both yourself and the person offering the deal.

Once common sense takes hold, the answers are likely to help you recognize fraud in any form, whether it originates close to home or overseas.

Rules for avoiding foreign fraud

  • Never send money to someone you don't know.
  • Never believe you can get something for nothing.
  • Never respond to an e-mail that asks you to click a link to a Web site and share personal information.
  • Fraud happens when greed overcomes common sense.
  • Never expect to win the lottery if you did not buy a ticket.
  • Use common sense. If it's free, why are they asking you to pay for it?
  • Always remember that any offer that's too good to be true is probably a scam.

Travel tips

  • Swap your sneakers.
  • Adopt native dress whenever possible.
  • Beware of offers for cheap but "genuine" antiques or artwork.
  • Check the State Department Web site to learn about local scams or travel advisories.
  • Contact the U.S. consulate if trouble occurs.
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