How to beat the 419 scammers

Money for nothing, chicks for free

So you think those wacky Nigerians who promise you compensation for assistance in moving funds from foreign countries to banks in Europe, are operating from scruffy cyber-cafes in Lagos?

Think again. When the police last year raided a flat in the Amsterdam suburb of Bijlmer as part of an investigation, they couldn't believe their eyes: faxes and phone lines everywhere. Mobile phone cards abound. And in one of the bedrooms a fully operational PBX telephone system, programmed to be The Anglo American Bank or The City Express Finance & Trust. Companies, you guessed it, formed solely with the purpose to rake in victims.

Some of us are all too familiar with those emails in which an alleged former dignitary of the Nigerian government proposes to set up a bank account where millions of dollars - often a fallen dictator's ill-gained fortune - can be kept safely. In return, you'll get a percentage of the stash.

Most people laugh at these pleas. Some read them out loud at parties. At least a half a dozen web scam bait sites poke fun at these get-rich-quick schemes, and engage in often hilarious dialogues with the scamsters.

Regrettably, victims fork over enough money to sustain an industry that ranks in Nigeria's Top five. Officials estimate that Britons alone lose £150 million a year to such frauds. Globally, experts put the annual take at a staggering $1.5 billion, money that is often used to finance heroin smuggling and other criminal activities.

Nigerian scammers used to operate from the UK, but combined police efforts have driven them to continental Europe, in particular to the Netherlands, which not only has a liberal immigration policy and a large African community, but also offers easy Internet access.

Recently we reported on 419 lottery scams. People are still getting conned. Recently, a businessman from Harrogate, Yorks signed over a handling fee of £3500 for a £1 million prize in a computer lottery to three men at a plush office in Amsterdam; he never saw his money again.

The Dutch anti-fraud squad estimates that at least 300 Africans are engaged in email frauds from Amsterdam. "The city has become central hub for these scams in Europe," Cees Schep of the Dutch National Criminal Intelligence Department told The Reg. "Sometimes criminals travel from Germany to operate here temporarily. Some enter the country pretending to be students, often paying for their education with stolen credit cards."

Along with Interpol, Cees Schep is now looking for new ways to fight the scams. "Throwing these people in jail won’t help a lot," he says. "They will be replaced by others in no time. We need to cripple their means of communications. Shut down their mobile phones and email boxes relentlessly." Schep has collected over 950 mobile phone numbers to do just that.

The Dutch Internet cable operator Chello is already helping: it booted dozens of subscribers spewing 419 email letters without warning. That seem to have some effect: scammers are seeking refuge in the Easy Internet Cafe in Amsterdam, where you can see them laboring over long lists of email addresses.

All you have to do is delete their email. ®

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