Advanced fee fraud – commonly known as 419 fraud has been going on for years.  Most commonly manifested in the emails – and in the past faxes and letters – that the potential victims receive offering them an opportunity to get a large sum of money to facilitate the transfer of funds or provide some other assistance.  The facilitation always requires the victim to provide some money up front – with the expectation of a big payday at the end.  It’s worth mentioning that while the overwhelming majority of these 419 scams play on the victim’s greed there are at least two other types that are becoming very common now – one which takes advantage of the victim’s desire for romance and one that plays on the victim’s good intention to help a friend or acquaintance in need.  In the first case the victim will be approached online by someone purporting to desire a romantic relationship.  This will be accompanied by the requisite photos of an attractive person.  Once contact is established and maintained for a set period of time there will be a request for money – either to make a visit to the victim, for a sick relative or some other urgent situation.  The second type involves receiving an email from a friend or acquaintance that is traveling overseas and has been robbed or has had some other misfortune and needs money.  In some sophisticated cases they me even hijack or spoof the friend/acquaintance’s real email address to add credibility.

While most people consider themselves too smart to fall for such transparent scams, the fact is many do or the fraud would have died out long ago.  Additionally, there are new strains that are more sophisticated where there may be in-person approaches to potential victims who travel or work abroad and in many cases these fraudsters are backstopped with elaborate props such as fake offices, seemingly official documents and other things that give them credibility.  This has been particularly prevalent in gold fraud scams occurring in Ghana.  They are also imbued with patience and increasingly the fraudsters are willing to take their time and develop a relationship over many months, sometimes even a year or more before bilking their victim.

While advanced fee fraud can be all over the work it is perhaps most common in West Africa, specifically Nigeria.  In fact the term “419” comes from the code for fraud in the Nigerian Penal Code.

So when does 419 fraud go from beyond just being a white collar financial fraud and become dangerous?  Generally it’s when the victim gets into a situation where they come into personal contact with the fraudsters.  In some cases the victim may be invited to visit the country where the fraudsters are located and subsequently kidnapped and held for ransom.  This has happened on several occasions in South Africa in particular.  While some of the victims have been released after payment of a ransom some like Greek businessman George Makronalli aren’t so lucky and are murdered.  In May 2012 a US citizen was kidnapped for ransom in the West African nation of Benin.  He reportedly traveled to Benin to meet contacts regarding a “business deal”.  He was later released unharmed in neighboring Ghana.

The important thing to take away from this is that you should be very skeptical and careful about any unsolicited approaches or offers of business deals even those that may have the trappings of legitimacy.  Also – understand that any person-to-person contact or visits you may be invited to make to conduct meetings can move into the realm of physical danger and that what was before a financial fraud can become a kidnapping or extortion with violent consequences.

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