A few weeks ago, a friend, who works in finance, told me a story. A Lebanese banker had come to see him and, very excitedly, told him about a great deal he was about to close. An Indonesian banker had approached the Lebanese via e-mail seeking help with a transaction, in which the Indonesian had converted a huge amount of gold into cash through a Dutch bank and now wanted to deposit that money — hundreds of millions of dollars — in a Lebanese bank. As proof, the Indonesian sent certificates that had the kind of flowery design many associate with South-East Asia. The Lebanese banker was very excited and had already started to plan where and how he and his partners would invest all this money.
Sound familiar? Of course, it was a scam. The e-mail was written in bad English, the certificates looked spurious, the Dutch bank had never heard of the Indonesian and yet, the Lebanese banker refused to believe that he had been had. The last thing my friend heard was that the Indonesian had flown to Beirut, where he stayed for two weeks — all paid for by the Lebanese banker and his associates — and then left, never to be heard from again. In retrospect, the Lebanese got off lightly with an airline ticket and a hotel bill. Usually, the victims of these scams have to advance money to the scammers to “facilitate the process” or “pay fees.”
And while only a small percentage of recipients of scam e-mails answer them, it is enough to yield substantial incomes for their senders, most of whom live in West Africa, South-East Asia and increasingly Eastern Europe. Since scams and fraud operate on many levels and through various means — e-mail, postal mail, fax, phone, business websites, and even online dating sites — reliable statistics are hard to come by but according to a BBC report from November 2006, in the UK alone, those “advance fee” scams have cost the economy around £150 million a year.
In another incident, Lebanese businessmen were offered a lucrative transaction with the Central Bank of Nigeria. They flew to Abuja, went to the bank, and met its governor. Only after their return to Beirut did they learn that, on the day of their meeting in Nigeria, the bank’s real governor had been attending a conference in the US and that the person they met in the governor’s office had been an impostor, probably a bank employee who had taken advantage of his boss’ absence to advance his criminal activities.
Most of us are well-aware of e-mail scams and the chances are that we have received e-mails entitled “I need your assistance” or “Great opportunity”. They usually claim that a bank clerk or lawyer has found himself responsible for a large sum of money belonging to a client who has met an untimely death and he now would like to transfer the money abroad but, alas, such is the law of his country that he needs a foreign partner to do so. If the recipient of the e-mail is gullible enough to answer, soon he or she will be asked to wire money to the new “partner” in order to facilitate matters. Needless to say, that money will then disappear and the “partner” no longer answers any e-mails.
Another version of this scam — called “419” or “Nigerian” referring to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud — is that the alleged author of the e-mail is a relative of a famous person who has recently died — often an ousted or murdered African head of state. A famous version purports to come from none other than Suha Arafat, the widow of the late Yasir Arafat, whose author asks to help “her” to transfer money from a bank in the Middle East to Europe.
Although these scams are most prevalent in Europe and North America, the Middle East is also fertile ground for finding greedy and gullible. But why do seemingly bright and streetwise people fall for them?
The anti-scam group Fraudwatchers say that it is a combination of lack of expertise and willingness to believe that leads people to fall for scams. As they state on their website “when a scammer who claims to be a barrister, banker or diplomat confidently presents what appear to be genuinely legal documents and arguments, it can be very convincing.” In addition, the scenarios presented — which almost always promise a large amount of money — are the kind that people want to believe and be in on.
Once a “mark” bites, the scammer starts a course of emotional manipulation, pulling the victim in further. He will use various psychological tools to extort money: the promise of a disproportionately high reward for a relatively small outlay, the feigning of personal distress, the pretense of authoritative documents, the offer of a special deal that, if not snatched, will quickly go to someone else. All have been proven emotionally hard to back out of.
Another, often overlooked, factor is that in the West and MENA alike there is a high level of ignorance of the financial protocol in foreign and exotic lands allied to an equally high diet of news about money-laundering war lords, blood diamonds, and uncontrolled business environments. Thus, a story where the daughter of a killed dictator or the lawyer of a European expat killed in an accident is trying to transfer large amounts of money out of the respective country might sound quite plausible. You have been warned.