Baiting the Nigerian 419 Money
By Jim Stratton
Notorious e-mail scam snares retiree's nest egg
In a windowless room, in a nondescript house on the other side of the world, Rupert Sessions glimpsed his fortune.
It was a metal suitcase, choked with $100 bills and protected by armed guards and a combination lock. The money had brought Sessions, an Ormond Beach retiree, all the way to the Persian Gulf.
He and a West African associate were there to collect the $21.5 million in the case. But he was concerned because the bills looked discolored.
Don't worry, officials told him. That's just a security measure. We can clean up the cash.
Finally, Sessions thought, it's ours.
* * * * *
There was, of course, no $21.5 million. Sessions, a 73-year-old retired electronics specialist, had been fleeced by what may be the most widespread fraud on Earth.
He had poured more than $300,000 into a Nigerian 419 scam, the label describing the legendary e-mails that promise millions but deliver nothing.
He sold stock, got a second mortgage and hocked his two cars. For more than a year, he gave virtual strangers every dollar he had. He bought them gold pens, cell phones and a laptop computer. Sessions spent so much that he now fears losing his home.
"It's all gone," he said Monday. "Everything."
Still, Sessions was so mesmerized by the well-spoken West Africans that to this day he does not think he was scammed. He ignored police warnings that the deal was bogus and instead blames his losses on corrupt foreign governments. He has not filed a complaint with authorities, and he keeps on his coffee table the carved wooden elephant and antelope given to him by his "associates."
"I consider them my friends," he says. "They're not criminals."
Authorities say they are, and they're part of a long-running fraud that takes its name from Section 419 of the Nigerian penal code. The scam emerged from that country in the 1980s, with swindlers sending letters and faxes. E-mail broadened their reach to millions of targets.
Today, everyone with an in-box has seen the pitch: A West African lawyer, banker or dignitary wants to get a huge stash of money out of the country. If the victim helps, he'll be cut in.
As the mark gets hooked, he is asked to help finance the transaction. The payoff is always just over the hill. Gerald Cavis, an Orlando-based U.S. Secret Service agent, puts it this way: "Everything they do, everything they say, they're trying to pull more money from the victim."
Victims like Rupert Sessions.
1st e-mail set trap
His trip to financial ruin began Feb. 2, 2002.
A man claiming to be a banker in the West African nation of Togo e-mailed Sessions, saying he was worried about $14 million left in the account of a dead German businessman.
The account had been dormant for years -- ever since the businessman and his family died in a plane crash, the e-mail read. The "banker" needed help moving the money. Otherwise, the government would confiscate it.
That's where Sessions fit in.
All he had to do was fill out some forms and allow the banker and his associates to transfer the money to his account. Then the group would divvy up the cash.
Sessions was wary but intrigued. His $250,000 nest egg had been scrambled by the stock market's slide. He and his partially disabled wife needed the money.
So he responded. Tell me more, he said, but don't ask me to do anything illegal.
No worries, his prospective associates replied. The deal was risk-free. Trust us, they said.
And Sessions did.
The more he corresponded, the more credible the West Africans appeared. They sent the German family's death certificates -- "Certificat de Deces, Republique Togalaise" -- and an inheritance document.
They earned his confidence, saying in one e-mail, "God has brought us together as brothers."
That message hit home.
"I think the Lord uses people to do his work," Sessions said. "With that money, we'd be comfortable, and we could do some good things."
A month or so into the correspondence, the deal got sticky. The bank, his partners claimed, would need a medical certificate from Sessions. It would cost $5,000.
Then, because Sessions didn't want to travel to Togo, the bank wanted a $12,000 absentee-collector fee. Sessions also hired a Togo-based lawyer -- one recommended by his handlers.
As the weeks passed, Sessions sent more and more money overseas to keep up with the seemingly endless demands for fees. But he didn't panic. His associates, after all, were helping him pay many of the fees -- or so he thought.
"At one point, they had to raise $250,000," he said. "I didn't put up any of that."
By then, Sessions was a true believer.
He had no idea the dead-executive story had been around for 20 years. He didn't know that the scammers routinely exploit a victim's faith in God. And he never noticed the "government documents" looked more like certificates a first-grade teacher might hand out.
Instead, he blamed -- and still blames -- corrupt government officials. If only they paid off the right people, he thought, the money would be released.
"With every move, the government comes up with another ridiculous fee," he said. "It's incredible."
Many people taken in
Even more incredible is how much victims lose. The figures are fuzzy, but a 1997 U.S. State Department report put worldwide losses at "hundreds of millions of dollars" annually. Last year, the FBI said 74 people were taken for $1.6 million.
Most victims aren't taken for as much as Sessions was; the typical amount people lose is $3,800, according to the FBI.
Authorities say the cons fund drug trafficking and have become the fourth- or fifth-largest industry in Nigeria. The crime rings behind them, the Secret Service has concluded, "represent a serious financial threat" to the United States.
Sometimes the threat turns physical
At least eight Americans have been held against their will after traveling to Africa to get their money. Fifteen people have been killed, including one American whose burned body was dumped outside a hotel in Lagos, Nigeria.
Though West Africa remains the crime's epicenter, it has spread far beyond that region. An Australian man was charged in October with running the con, and scammers have been found in Atlanta, Dallas and Toronto.
The scammers are often well-educated and quick on their feet. The group, the State Department report reads, "are the best in the world for non-violent spectacular crimes."
The most spectacular phase of their sting is the face-to-face meeting with the victim.
This is the scam at its most theatrical. There are scripts, sets, props and a group of accomplices to fill out the cast. To make the fraud work, the scammers need people to play guards, a chemist and government officials.
They also need a victim, and in this case they had a good one. By the time Rupert Sessions boarded a plane for the Persian Gulf in February 2003, he had spent almost a year preparing for the role. When he checked into Dubai's Marriott Hotel, he was more than ready.
The biggest sting
Sessions had worried about this trip, but now, as he and one of his West African contacts rode through the city, he wondered whether things were falling into place.
Their car stopped at a modest home in a Dubai suburb. The house, he said, was a quasi-governmental office -- "almost like an extension of the Togo Embassy."
Sessions and his partner were led past armed guards into a room with no windows. In the room there was a large, gray metal suitcase. In the case was the prize on which Sessions had spent his life savings: $21.5 million in stacks of $100 bills.
But the money looked strange. It was covered with black, chalky powder.
"What's that?" he asked.
Don't worry, his hosts said. Cash was routinely coated with the substance to protect it from being stolen and spent. It was easy to clean, they said; just watch.
A man wearing rubber gloves and a doctor's mask stepped forward. He poured a solution into a small saucer and pulled three bills from the case. He dropped the bills into the saucer and rinsed them.
A few seconds later, they emerged clean and green. Sessions' heart raced as he inspected the bills. They were authentic.
But before Sessions could celebrate, officials delivered the bad news: They had run out of cleaning solution. They could make more, but it wouldn't be cheap.
The chemicals and continued security would cost $285,000. Sessions was stunned. But he was already in for so much that he felt he couldn't turn back now.
So Sessions took a $25,000 cash advance on his credit card -- one of about 16 he'd gotten -- while his associate promised to stay in Dubai to ensure the deal worked out. The gesture impressed Sessions.
"I trust him completely," he said. "He's a very honest man."
When Sessions returned to Ormond Beach, he and his wife sold or borrowed against everything they had left in stocks, insurance and annuities. He wired the proceeds to his partners.
Eight months later, they had all the money they needed. Sessions' share of the money cleaning was between $60,000 and $80,000.
"You kind of lose track," he says.
With the money in place, Sessions planned a return trip. He bought plane tickets and made hotel reservations. But the day before the flight, his partners sent an urgent message.
The chemist had tried to clean the money, but it had turned red. His partners wanted to try again for another $60,000, but Sessions had had enough.
Or more correctly, he had nothing. There was no more money to bleed from him.
'It's ruined us'
Sessions can't easily say what the last two years cost him. Between selling his investments, running up credit-card bills, depleting savings and borrowing against his house, the total comes to about $320,000. Most of that is new debt.
Retired for a decade, Sessions is scrambling for work and putting his prized 1967 Cadillac convertible up for sale.
Anything to raise money.
As Sessions sits in his living room, describing the disaster, his wife calls from the kitchen. There's a finance company on the phone, and she doesn't want to talk to them. Sessions lifts himself from his easy chair. His wife's voice -- a tight, scared whisper -- drifts into the living room.
"He wants us to pay the bill now!"
He returns a few minutes later, with Dolly, a sweet brown Boxer trailing behind. He slumps into his chair and tries to explain what happened.
Sessions still won't accept that his contacts were crooks. He says they're victims. When shown a report describing the "black money scam" -- a sleight-of-hand trick at least 70 years old -- he shrugs it off.
To him, the scammers are corrupt foreign governments. His "friends" and the money are real.
"There was never," he says, "any attempt by them to defraud me."
The response is unbelievable but not uncommon. Paul Elliott, a Jacksonville Secret Service agent, said it's too painful for some victims to accept that they've lost everything to a fairy tale.
He remembers one South Florida woman he urged to break off contact with the swindlers. Instead, she warned them that the Secret Service was sniffing around.
Rupert Sessions may be in the same place.
It might be dangerous for him to admit what happened. But there are moments when he seems to understand.
It's little things he says while leafing through the 3-inch stack of e-mails. Random thoughts that suggest a part of him knows.
"I guess not knowing the people should have made me suspicious," he says. "They never did really explain how they got my name."
Today, the answer doesn't matter much. Sessions has more pressing things to worry about -- like how to keep a roof over his head.
"I have to figure out a way to pay the bills," he says. "I thought this would help do that. Instead, it's ruined us."