I have heard many stories about receiving unexpected e-mails. The usual story sounds something 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 a bank account or a safety deposit box.
The person contacting you will claim to be a lawyer or a bank employee or a widow or child of the deceased. He or she often claims that the deceased has the same last name as yours. In some cases, the author of the e-mail may even claim to know the exact relationship of the "deceased" to you, although they probably will not provide details. All you need to do is send money and bank account information, and the process of getting your money begins.
In fact, this is just one variation of some widespread scams. It's amazing the number of people who want to share millions with you. It seems that driving must really be dangerous in Nigeria! Just the number of people with my last name alone who died in auto crashes in that country is staggering! Maybe driving is only dangerous to people of my last name?
Of course, all of these deceased "relatives" were wealthy as well. What are the odds of that? I never thought I ever had any wealthy relatives and now it appears that I have (or had) lots of them in Nigeria alone! And, would you believe, all of them had all their money tied up in some bank that cannot disburse the money. Oh yes, did I mention that none of these folks have any known heirs other than me? Again, what are the odds? Now this well meaning general/official/bank clerk or whoever wants to help me get the money out of the country and is offering to let me keep a big percentage of the loot.
It also seems strange that the person sending this offer to share millions of dollars also has a computer that is stuck in ALL UPPER CASE, making the e-mails more difficult to read.
The message looks good. It's got names of real Swiss banks on it. Of course, you might not realize that 100 Fleet St. in London, one commonly-used return address, is the location of a cobbler's shop, not a bank branch.
Sadly, I know one person who fell for this, at least for a day or two until friends heard about it and counseled her. I have heard tales of many others, often elderly people, who were victimized by these scams, sometimes losing many thousands of dollars. I thought I would caution everyone who reads this newsletter to tell your friends: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Please tell them they don't have any distant relatives in Nigeria or elsewhere who died and left millions.
Most of these scams are what is known as an advance-fee scheme, sometimes called a 419 scam. "419" refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code that outlaws such scams. Nigeria is the country that popularized such scams, starting in the early 1980s. However, such scams now are common throughout Africa, the former Soviet republics, Indonesia, the Philippines and a number of other countries.
These scam artists want you to believe that easy money is available to you. The ploy about the death of a distant relative is simply a ploy to gain your interest. Then they lead you through a series of e-mails in which they will ask you to pay advance fees. Sure, it sounds good: just pay a few thousand dollars now in order to obtain millions later. Simple, right? Wrong!
Once the con artists realize that you are (1.) gullible and (2.) have sufficient funds to pay such fees, they will come back again and again asking for payment of more and more advance fees. They also may suggest that you travel to a foreign locale to deliver the fees and sign the necessary forms. More than one person has told friends and neighbors that he or she was flying to an African nation in order to pick up millions of dollars, only to never be heard from again.
Even if you stay at home and continue to send advance "fees," the promised millions never come. Eventually you will realize that you have lost all the money you sent.
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.
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.
If you are a genealogist, you probably already know who your relatives are. I would suggest you be leery of any e-mails received that claim to have knowledge of previously unknown wealthy relatives.
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.