Spam Scams: Africa's City of Cyber Gangsters
You know that annoying spam in your inbox offering you a fantasic business opportunity? It was probably sent from Lagos. The chaotic and crumbling Nigerian city is widely considered the world's leading location for Internet-based scam artists. They've already defrauded victims -- mostly from rich western countries -- of millions.
Frieda Springer-Beck in her office in Lagos, Nigeria.
The man was once a millionaire. He was self-employed and spent almost two decades living in such exotic foreign countries as Yemen. He thought he knew his way around the world, that he would never lose control, never fall victim to a scam. But he was -- fleeced for 600,000 euros over the Internet. Now he sits in an office in Lagos, fighting back tears and self-pity, saying: "This is all so embarrassing."
Frieda Springer-Beck, a slim woman in her mid-fifties, sits behind her desk wearing a white blouse. With an encouraging gaze, she takes notes and nods to the man, indicating that he should continue.
A stack of 71 files sits on her desk -- one for each case, for each victim, each lawsuit. They all belong to Germans who have lost their money -- at least $300,000 -- here in Nigeria. Springer-Beck, a mother and former housewife in the small Bavarian town of Bechhofen, is their last hope. She speaks German, she knows her way around in this confusing country and, most importantly, she knows what she's talking about. After falling prey to a scam artist in Lagos, she now hunts them and helps their victims.
Springer-Beck's office is in a dilapidated building in the city's congested downtown area. Every morning, she fights her way through Lagos' never-ending traffic jams in her dented VW Golf, through eye-stinging smog and the stench of open sewers, past beggars and merchants knocking on her car windows. Her office is on the building's fourth floor, just below the corrugated metal roof. On her way in, she passes a few guards and a hallway lined with cells with prisoners saying their morning prayers.
The building belongs to Nigeria's new anti-corruption agency the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). She works for EFCC as an independent contractor. Together with the agency's officials, Springer-Beck attempts to track down the stolen money. But it's a daunting task, one that involves millions of dollars, thousands of scam artists and a corrupt state trying to reform.
Nigeria's new Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
The most pernicious element of such fraud is its simplicity. The scammers send letters and e-mails to strangers, asking for help. In most cases, they know nothing more about their potential victims than their addresses. The letters always follow the same basic formula: A fortune worth several and sometimes as much as hundreds of millions of dollars needs to be moved from continent to continent, and unfortunate events prevent the owners of the money from doing so. This, according to the letters, is the reason the recipients have been contacted. Their assistance will, of course, be handsomely rewarded when part of the fortune is transferred into the recipient's account.
If a victim responds, more letters follow, and each new letter describes new difficulties, people who have to be bribed, banks that are suddenly charging additional fees, documents that need to be prepared, and the victim is always the one who pays -- that is, until he realizes he has been scammed, or until he is broke.
Variations of the scam offer a lucrative business or profits from an investment that a deceased relative of the e-mail recipient supposedly made. The stories seem to outdo one another in their outrageousness. In one letter, former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's widow asks for help. Others tell moving stories of natural disasters. In one, the sender reports that an astronaut working for the Nigerian space program is stuck in orbit, and that millions of dollars are needed to bring him back to earth.
Check your inbox
Almost everyone who has an e-mail account has received such scam spam at least once. Most recipients recognize the ploy and ignore the e-mails, but it works more often than one would expect. Avarice, it seems, is often more powerful than reason.
The victims live in the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, France and Britain. In the past year, $160 million were sent to Nigeria from the United States and Great Britain alone. Some experts even believe that revenues from these scams are Nigeria's third-largest source of hard currency, after oil and cocoa.
The 419 scam became popular in Nigeria more than 20 years ago, during the hyper-corrupt "Second Republic" under then President Shehu Shagari. At the time, the letters were still being sent by regular mail, and in 1993 it was just such a letter that Frieda Springer-Beck found sitting on her table at home in Bechhofen.
There was a foreign stamp on the envelope, and the letter was from a return address in Lagos. A surprised Springer-Beck, who had no friends or business associates "down there" opened the envelope and began to read.
The letter was addressed to her husband. The writer asked about his health and about the long, unexpected silence, and wanted to know what to do with the money. What did the recipient plan to do with the profits from the investment -- $24.6 million -- the writer asked? Where should it be sent? These were the unknown writer's questions, all in articulate English.
Springer-Beck's husband had died years earlier in an auto accident. He had never mentioned anything about an investment in a Nigerian power plant. After his death, Springer-Beck took over the management of the family business, a company that produced artists' brushes in Germany and Turkey. She traveled a great deal, negotiating with suppliers and buyers. Her life was already complicated enough without some mysterious business partner of her late husband somewhere in Africa.
She read the note again: $24.6 million. The letter ended with a telephone number
Springer-Beck landed at Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos a few days later. It was January. The air was humid and hot, and Springer-Beck had packed nothing but winter clothes. She was about to make the biggest mistake of her life.
A white Mercedes was waiting for her at the airport. The driver, who wore a white suit and introduced himself as Assiri Waziria, chauffeured Springer-Beck through the streets of Lagos, a city she found frightening. She saw street merchants in rags, beggars pressing the stumps of their severed limbs against the car windows, children pleading for food. She saw wretched huts made of nailed-together pieces of wood and corrugated metal, entire communities spread out under the support columns of the highway that bisects the city.
Lagos is Africa's second-largest city and home to over 10 million people.
Her destination was the best hotel in Lagos. A room with a view of the Atlantic had been booked for two nights, the costs paid by the alleged business partner of her deceased husband. She was scheduled to meet with his attorney the next day.
Fred Ajudua's law firm was in Lagos's business district, his offices luxuriously appointed and his walls covered with certificates and diplomas. Ajudua himself, a tall and powerful-looking man, welcomed his guest from Germany with open arms. Finally, he said, she had arrived. Springer-Beck wanted to believe him.
Ajudua apologized, saying that he couldn't give her the business documents or the promised money yet, because both were locked in a safe at the National Bank of Nigeria, but that we would take her there tomorrow.
The next day, the white Mercedes drove into the parking garage at the National Bank, where Ajudua and Springer-Beck entered an elevator in the adjacent building. The building, Ajudua said, was where the bank had its legal department.
A man, who introduced himself as a bank employee, welcomed them into his office. A file was sitting on the man's desk. Springer-Beck recognized her company's letterhead on a document.
The bank employee explained to her that she would have to pay a four-percent tax to receive the $24.6 million, as well as legal fees amounting to one percent of the remainder. The man pushed a piece of paper across his desk, which stated that the tax came to $984,000 and the attorney's fee $236,160. The tax would be deducted from the original amount, the man said, but the attorney's fee had to be paid directly to Ajudua.
When they had returned to his office, Ajudua asked Springer-Beck how much cash she had brought along. She told him she had $2,000. He asked for the money as a down payment, but Springer-Beck said she wanted to discuss the matter with her family first.
A few days later, after Springer-Beck had returned to Bechhofen, she received a call from Ajudua. He wanted to know if she had come to a decision. Springer-Beck responded that she was willing to pay him $10,000, but he laughed. For $10,000, he said, he wouldn't lift another finger, and all the money would go to the Nigerian government the following week.
Springer-Beck asked him why and Ajudua responded that Nigeria had a special law to deal with such matters. Under the alleged law, when a foreigner fails to claim the profits from an investment within ten years, the money goes to the state. The ten-year period, he said, was about to end the following week.
Swallowing the bait
Springer-Beck said that she couldn't come up with the $236,000 that quickly, that the best she could do would be $100,000. The two settled on a sum of $94,000.
She packed the money into a suitcase and flew back to Lagos. Ajudua had said that there wouldn't be enough time for a wire transfer. Ajudua gave her a receipt. But Springer-Beck didn't receive the promised millions. After four days, she left Lagos empty-handed. This time she paid her own hotel bill.
Back in Germany, she transferred the remaining $142,000 to an account with Citibank in New York, as Ajudua has instructed her to do. Then she waited. But instead of transferring the millions, Ajudua demanded another $120,000 for a "certificate of completion" -- a bank requirement, he said. Springer-Beck did some research and discovered that this requirement did in fact exist in Nigeria.
She wasn't sure what to do. Stop paying? Then she would lose the $236,000 she had already given Ajudua. Change attorneys? But the new attorney would also have to be paid.
Listen to her family, her friends, who were telling her that the whole thing was a scam? It was too late to back out. She had taken part of the $236,000 from her company's account. In the end, Springer-Beck borrowed the $120,000 for the supposed bank certificate from a family member, and she received a receipt from the Nigerian National Bank.
She then flew to Lagos for the third time.
Ajudua showed her photos of a power plant near the city of Kaduna in northern Nigeria. Her husband's name was printed on a metal sign on the wall of the plant. But Ajudua produced neither the bank file nor the money. Springer-Beck complained, but he ignored her. She then gave him an ultimatum, but he ignored that too.
- Part 1: Africa's City of Cyber Gangsters
- Part 2: Scammed in Lagos: Continue reading on page 2.
© DER SPIEGEL 45/2005
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