New scams focus on familiar target: physicians

Authorities say the best defense for "419" advance-fee scams is skepticism.

By Bob Cook — Posted March 28, 2005

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It's amazing the number of people who want to share millions with you. Nigerian generals, exiled Liberian government ministers, foreign lottery operators, banks trying to find heirs of someone who died in a car crash -- the offers are all there, in your e-mail, fax machine, answering machine and even the good old-fashioned mailbox. Why do all these people want to share riches with you?

The short answer is: They don't. Law enforcement authorities say they're scammers, participating in a common kind of fraud known as an advance-fee scheme. And its practitioners, authorities say, are increasingly targeting physicians.

Often, advance-fee fraud is referred to as "419" fraud, after the section of the Nigerian criminal code that outlaws such scams. Nigeria is the country that popularized such scams, starting in the early 1980s.

They seek to lure people into sending money or banking information on the pretense that it's needed to share in the booty the scammers, posing as dignitaries or financial agents, say is available. They also might seek to have victims travel to a foreign locale to deliver the information -- which in some cases has resulted in the victim's kidnapping or murder.

Peter Tachauer, a detective sergeant with the City of London police, is investigating a case in which American doctors are receiving letters, e-mails or faxes that go like this: A previously unknown member of your family has been killed in a car crash overseas. You are the only person left who could be related to the deceased, and you might be the sole inheritor of millions of dollars left in an account.

The person contacting you will have details of genealogical research. All you need to do is send money and bank account information, and the process of getting your money begins.

The missive looks good. It's got names of real Swiss banks on it, and scammers have an amazing amount of personal data about the doctor who gets it, Tachauer said. Of course, an American physician couldn't know that 100 Fleet St. in London, one return address, is the location of a cobbler's shop, not a bank branch.

Tachauer said the Swiss banks contacted him because they were getting inundated by calls about the note's "bona fides" from American physicians who had received it.

Tachauer said he didn't know how many physicians received the note, but he does know that at least two physicians lost a collective $100,000. The doctors, whom Tachauer did not identify, traveled to Amsterdam to deliver cash to the scammers, who said such a meeting and transaction was necessary to pay the fees and charges for the money transfer, and legal costs for "complications" related to it.

"What [these scammers] can do knows no bounds," Tachauer said. To the unwitting and unwary, such a scheme "sounds plausible."

The U.S. Secret Service, which investigates financial crimes, estimates that Americans are taken for hundreds of millions of dollars per year from such scams, though the total could be more. Often, the agency says, victims are too embarrassed to admit they fell for it, or victims figure -- correctly -- that catching the scammers is just about impossible.

Among the few victims speaking out is a Tampa, Fla., family physician and his wife, a nurse. In August 2000, Ali-Reza Ghasemi, MD, and his wife, Shaleh, got a call from a man identifying himself as a director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., a real group that oversees the country's oil and gas industry. The man said an Iranian businessman had died in Nigeria and left $27 million to Dr. Ghasemi. The call was plausible because the Ghasemis had abandoned investments in their native Iran when they fled after the Shah of Iran's 1979 overthrow.

As Shaleh Ghasemi tells it, the deal sounded even more legitimate when the call was followed by a fax of official-looking documents and instructions on how to transfer the money to a bank account in Atlanta. But somehow there always was some glitch, fee, tax or other problem that needed the Ghasemis' money, which they had to borrow to try to seal the deal.

Eventually, Shaleh Ghasemi called the U.S. State Dept., who told her she and her husband were victims of fraud. All told, they lost $400,000. No arrests have been made in their case, which Shaleh Ghasemi, a frequent poster on anti-419 Web sites, has likened to "financial terrorism."

The difficulty in tracking down 419 scammers is the international nature of the crimes. In Tachauer's case, the banks are in Switzerland, the physicians are in the United States, the meetings are in the Netherlands, and the scammers' cell phone numbers are registered in the United Kingdom (that's how Tachauer got involved).

"There have been arrests, but it is difficult to pin down who is doing this," said Brandon Bridgeforth, a special agent for the U.S. Secret Service in Chicago.

One of the advances 419 scammers have made is going beyond random e-mails by trying to find specific targets, in hopes that their pitch will be more believable and personal.

Bridgeforth said 419 perpetrators have geared letters to many specific professions, not just physicians. But in the case Tachauer is investigating, the diversity of ethnicities in U.S. doctors is the reason for their targeting. The notes are sent to "a lot of foreign-sounding names," he said, figuring that those physicians would be the most likely to think they might have a long-lost relative in another country.

The Secret Service, the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission -- as well as private citizens and foreign governments -- all have Web sites warning about 419 fraud and how to spot it. The Secret Service recommends that anyone who gets such a note or call, or thinks they've been a victim of a 419 scam, contact their local Secret Service office. Offices are in all 50 states.

But the best defense against 419 schemes is skepticism. "If you're getting money, then why do you have to send money?" Bridgeforth said. "If it's somebody you've never heard of, how did they get your name?"

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What's the 419?

"Advance fee" fraud -- or 419 fraud, named after a section of the Nigerian criminal code -- is estimated to fleece victims of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The U.S. Secret Service offers these guidelines for identifying a 419 scheme:

  • A letter, fax or e-mail arrives from an "official" representing a foreign government or agency.
  • The "official" offers to transfer millions of dollars into your personal bank account.
  • You are asked to travel overseas to finish the transaction.
  • You are requested to provide blank company letterhead forms, bank account information, phone/fax numbers or other official information.
  • You receive documents with official-looking stamps, seals or logos testifying to the authenticity of the proposal.
  • You must provide advance fees for various taxes, attorney fees, transaction fees or bribes.
  • The promised millions never come. You've lost all the money you sent.

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External links

U.S. Secret Service alert on 419 fraud (link)

U.S. Secret Service field offices (link)

The 419 Coalition, dedicated to exposing and fighting 419 schemes (link)

FBI list of common investment fraud schemes, including 419 fraud (link)

Federal Trade Commission alert on 419 fraud (link)

Experiences of 419 fraud victims, including Shaleh Ghasemi, wife of Ali-Reza Ghasemi, MD (link)

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