ever wonder who is behind those 419 emails... http://www.scam-detectives.co.uk/blog/2010/01/22/interview-with-a-scammer-part-one/ Interview with a scammer – Part One Jan. 22, 2010 (Advance Fee Fraud) Editor’s Disclaimer: Whilst I am reporting an actual conversation, I have no way of verifying the information or details contained within. The interviewee contacted me voluntarily and anonymously claiming to be an ex-scammer who is now studying in the UK. I have agreed to tell his story but this is told ‘as is’ without guarantee as to accuracy or truthfulness. To protect our users we have agreed that the interviewee, who will be known by the pseudonym “John”, will not directly take part in discussions or comments and will not join our community. I do not know how long “John” will maintain contact and in the event that contact is broken, this series of blogs will be discontinued. Scam-Detective: Thank you for agreeing to talk to us about your experience ‘working’ as a scammer in Lagos, Nigeria. Tell us a little about yourself. John: I’m 23 years old and was released from prison in Nigeria in October last year where I served two years for fraud. I am now doing a business studies course at college and am in the UK on a student exchange programme. As part of my rehabilitation I am also working with the EFCC in Nigeria to help them understand more about scams and how the gangs work. I don’t do scams any more. Scam-Detective: How did you get involved in scamming people on the Internet? John: I come from a poor family in Lagos, Nigeria. We did not have very much money and good jobs are hard to find. I was approached to work for a gang master when I was 15, because I had done well in school with my English, and was getting to be good with computers. The gang master was offering good money and I took the chance to help my family. Scam-Detective: Do you think that your teachers at school had reported your talents to the gang master? John: Yes. There is a lot of corruption in Nigeria and the gangs pay well to find people with good English skills to work the scams. Scam-Detective: What kind of scams were you involved with? John: Mainly advance fee fraud where we would tell people that someone has died and left millions in a bank or safety deposit box and that we needed help to get it out of the country. That is the most successful type of scam, but I also did Phishing to try and get user names and passwords for peoples online bank accounts. Scam-Detective: How did you find victims for your scams? John: First you need to understand how the gangs work. At the bottom are the “foot soldiers”, kids who spend all of their time online to find email addresses and send out the first emails to get people interested. When they receive a reply, the victim is passed up the chain, to someone who has better English to get copies of ID from them like copies of their passport and driving licenses and build up trust. Then when they are ready to ask for money, they are passed further up again to someone who will pretend to be a barrister or shipping agent who will tell the victim that they need to pay charges or even a bribe to get the big cash amount out of the country. When they pay up, the gang master will collect the money from the Western Union office, using fake ID that they have taken from other scam victims. Scam-Detective: But where do the “foot soldiers” find the email addresses? John: Lots of people sign guestbooks online and leave their email addresses all over the internet on forums and websites. We would just visit the guestbooks, forums and websites and harvest the email addresses. Some gangs have software that collects these emails automatically, so it cuts down on the work. Scam-Detective: What percentage of emails would get a response? John: Maybe 9 or 10 out of every thousand emails. Then maybe 1 out of every 20 replies would lead to us getting money out of the victim in the end. Scam-Detective: And how much money would you expect to get from a victim? John: On average, about $7,500 (£4,600) but the most I know about was $25,000 (£15,400). This would be taken in smaller amounts, starting with a couple of hundred, then there would be more “problems” with the transaction, which would mean that we needed more money to release the big payout. People would keep paying more because they were very small amounts compared to the big payout that they believed they would get in the end. Scam-Detective: How much money did you earn from scamming people? John: In the year before I was arrested I earned about $75,000 (£46,000) for my family. I bought my family a better house and drove a BMW. I had mobile phones and laptops and everything that comes with having lots of money. I lost it all when I was arrested and my family had to move away from Lagos because I gave the names of my bosses to the police to get a lighter sentence. My family were in great danger because of me and I am very ashamed of that. I am very ashamed of the type of person I became, and I know now that I should have got a proper, honest job instead of stealing from good people. At this point “John” became very upset and I stopped the interview. “John” has agreed to contact me again next week so he can tell me more about his time as a scammer. I don’t know if he will call, but I hope he does, because I feel that his story may help to warn people about the techniques scammers use to garner trust and eventually extract money from their victims. If there are any specific questions you would like me to ask “John” then please leave a comment. Stay Tuned! ***UPDATE*** ”John” did call again and you can read the continuation of our interview Here: http://www.scam-detectives.co.uk/blog/2010/01/26/interview-with-a-scammer-part-two/ We were contacted by reformed Nigerian advance fee fraud scammer “John” last week. He asked us to publish his story to help warn our readers about the dangers of entering into transactions with strangers via email. You can read the first part of our interview with “John” Here. I tried to get “John” to talk more about his work with the EFCC, and to tell me more about how he came to be in the UK despite his conviction, but he became guarded and told me he thought I was trying to trick him into identifying himself. I felt it was more important to talk about scams than corroborate his story, so let this go. Scam-Detective: We spoke last week about your involvement with advance fee fraud scams and “phishing” emails. You told me that you were recruited into a gang at the age of 15 and were convicted of fraud a little over 2 years ago, serving 2 years in prison for your crimes. You also told me that you are now working with the Nigerian authorities to bring other scammers to justice, whilst trying to educate yourself by doing a business studies course at college. John: That’s right. I’m trying to make things right with God and my family. Scam-Detective: A reader has asked me to talk to you about face to face scams. Were you ever involved in meeting a victim, or was all of your contact by email? John: I never met a victim, but I was involved in a couple of Wash-Wash scams. Scam-Detective: Wash Wash scams? What does that involve? John: We would tell the victim that we had a trunk full of money, millions of dollars. One victim met some of my associates in a hotel in Amsterdam, where he was shown a box full of black paper. He was told that the money had been dyed black to get through customs, and that it could be cleaned with a special chemical that was very expensive. My associates showed him how this worked with a couple of $100 bills from the top of the box, which they rinsed with some liquid to remove the black dye. Of course the rest of the bills were only black paper, but the victim saw real money. He handed over $27,000 (about £17,000) to buy the chemicals and was told to return to the hotel later that day to pick up the cash. Of course when he came back, there was nobody there. He couldn’t report it to anybody because if it had been real it would have been illegal, so he would have gotten himself into trouble. Scam-Detective: Ok, I also want to talk more about how you managed to get your victims to trust you. I know it can be difficult for legitimate businesses to persuade customers to buy their products, yet you were able to convince people to part with their cash to get their hands on money that never existed in the first place, with at least one taking an international flight on top. That’s quite a skill, how did you learn to do it? John: Once I had spent some time as a “foot soldier” (sending out initial approaches and passing serious victims to other scammers) I was promoted to act as either a barrister, shipping agent or bank official. In the early days I had a supervisor who would read my emails and suggest responses, then I was left to do it myself. I had lots of different documents that I would use to convince the victim that I was genuine, including photographs of an official looking man in an office, fake ID and storage manifests, bank statements showing the money, whatever would best convince the victim that I, and the money, was real. I think the English term is to “worm my way” into their trust, taking it slowly and carefully so I didn’t scare them away by asking for too much money too soon. Scam-Detective: What would you do if a victim had sent money and couldn’t afford to send more, or got cold feet? John: I would use whatever tactics were needed to get more money. I would send faked letters which stated that the money was about to be taken out of the account by the bank or seized by the government to make them think it was urgent, or tell them that this was definitely the last obstacle to the money being released. I would encourage them to take out loans or borrow money from friends to make the last payment, but tell them that it was important that they didn’t tell anyone what the money was for. I promised them that the expenses would be paid back on top of their share of the money. Scam-Detective: So you basically didn’t care where the money came from, or what they had to do to get it, as long as they got it? John: Some of the blame has to go to the victims. They wanted the money too because they were greedy. Lots of times I would get emails telling me that they wanted more money than I was offering because of the money they were having to send. They could afford to lose the money. Scam-Detective: John, I think you have been basically honest with me so far. Please don’t stop that now. You know as well as I do that not all of your victims were motivated by greed. I have seen plenty of scam emails that talk about dying widows who want to give their money to charity, or young people who are in refugee camps and need help to get out. You targeted vulnerable, charitable people as well as greedy businessmen, didn’t you? You didn’t care whether they could afford it or not, did you? John: Ok, you are right. I am not proud of it but I had to feed my family. Scam-Detective: And fund your BMW, mobile phones and laptops, let’s not forget about that. When the victim had run out of money and couldn’t send any more, was that the end of it? Or did you go back later for more? John: We had something called the recovery approach. A few months after the original scam, we would approach the victim again, this time pretending to be from the FBI, or the Nigerian Authorities. The email would tell the victim that we had caught a scammer and had found all of the details of the original scam, and that the money could be recovered. Of course there would be fees involved as well. Victims would often pay up again to try and get their money back. Scam-Detective: So when the victim had had some time to get over the fact that you had wormed your way into their lives, gained their trust and ripped them off, you went back for another bite of the cherry? The more I speak to you John, the less I like you. John: I know, I know. Don’t be angry with me. I’m not proud of what I have done and I am very sorry for everyone who sent money. If I could give it back I would. Scam-Detectives: But only if they sent you $1000 by Wire Transfer first? Ignore that. Tell me more about corruption in Nigeria. Did you pay bribes to officials and wire transfer office staff to make things easier? John: I can’t tell you about that, I have to be careful. I can tell you that lots of people make money from scams in Nigeria, and not all of them are scammers. Everyone has their cut. I terminated the interview at this point as I was getting angry with “John” and felt it was better for me not to continue. “John” has asked if he can contact me again. I agreed but am not sure what more I can learn from him that would be useful to our readers. I think that any further conversations would only serve to make “John” feel better and act as some kind of counselling for him, which I have no interest in providing. I don’t want him to feel better about what he has done, or to assuage his conscience. He should feel guilt for the rest of his life. “John” called me again on Monday February 1st – Read the third (and probably final) part of our interview here: http://www.scam-detectives.co.uk/blog/2010/02/02/interview-with-a-scammer-part-three/ Scam Detective: Before we start, I’d like to apologise for losing my temper with you last time we spoke. I said some things that I should not have said and it was rude. I’m sorry. John: It’s ok, I understand you getting angry. I know I have done some very bad things. Scam Detective: I want to talk about the gang you worked with. Tell me about your relationship with the rest of the gang. John: It was not good. The gang was full of bad people. There was always pressure to send more emails and get more victims. It was always “send more, send more”. When I was promoted and was asking victims for money, the boss always wanted to know when the money was coming. Whatever I was doing was not good enough and if he thought I was not working hard enough he would threaten me and my family. One time I tried to run my own scam on the side and cut the boss out. He found out and beat me badly. He watched me much closer after that and I didn’t dare to try it again. Another time I got into big trouble because of a victim who kept saying he had sent money when he hadn’t. He sent me 4 fake wire transfer codes and each time the boss went to pick up the money they told him that the number was wrong. The last time the office staff called the police and the boss had to run away. I got beat really bad for that one. I think the guy was just playing with me for fun and never had any real money. Scam Detective: Did you get a lot of replies like that? John: I had a few but I learned how to tell if they were serious or not. Scam Detective: How? John: A serious victim would give me the information I asked for straight away so they could get the money. If they were playing a game then they would tell long stories about themselves and give lots of reasons why they could not send the money, or pretend that they had sent it like the guy I just told you about. Scam Detective: What about relationships with other scammers? Was there co-operation between different gangs? John: There are lots of gangs playing the game. We would sell lists of active email addresses who had not sent money to us to other gangs who would try different scams with them. There was a lot of competition too. One time my email was hacked by another gang who stole all of my contacts. I lost a lot of money that day. Scam Detective: You mentioned your family earlier, did they know how you were making money? John: Yes. Lots of young people in my country play the (scam) game. Many people think that white people deserve to have their money taken because of the way they have treated Africans in the past. My family knew what I was doing, but didn’t like it very much. Scam Detective: If they didn’t like it, did they ever try and talk you into getting a “real” job? John: They were realistic. They knew that I had no chance of getting a job that paid as well as the game, so we agreed not to talk about it. Scam Detective: You were caught by the EFCC. Tell me how that happened? John: They know that the internet cafes in Lagos are full of scammers and every now and then one will get raided. I was about to collect a big payout from a victim in the US, about $10,000 (£6,000) and the emails were open on my screen. They arrested me and took me away for questioning. They offered me a lighter sentence if I gave them the names of the boss and the other members of the gang, so I did. At my trial the judge said that if I had not helped them, he would have given me 5 years, but only gave me 2. Scam-Detective: Can you give our readers any tips about how they can avoid getting scammed? John: The biggest thing I can say is to delete the emails and never to reply. Once you reply your email address will be put on a list and sold to other gangs, even if you never reply again. It just tells them that the address is real and that somebody reads email going to that address. If they can’t get you with 419 (advance fee fraud) they will try phishing or viruses to get your banking details and take your money that way. I used lots of different stories to get people to send money. I used the dying widow story a lot, saying that I was an old lady dying of cancer and had fallen out with my children. I wanted to give my money to charity and didn’t trust them to carry out my wishes, so was looking for someone outside of the country to make sure it went to the right place. So whatever the story is, make sure you delete the email, because you can be sure it is a scam. Another thing is not to put email addresses anywhere on the internet. If it is on a guestbook or message board, or on a website anywhere then the foot soldiers will find it and put it on their list. Scam Detective: What about our readers who have relatives or friends that are being scammed as we speak but are finding it difficult to persuade them that they really are being scammed? John: I would often get messages from victims saying that their son or daughter had told them they were being scammed. I would try and convince them that I was real and if they had already sent money they would usually keep sending it because they had sent too much to back out and needed to get the big payout to replace their savings or whatever. I would say that if you think your mom or dad is being scammed then show them everything you can about the 419 (advance fee fraud) scam and keep showing them different websites that warn people about it. They should stop replying and the scammer will give up in time because they want to spend time on people who are going to pay. If you have to, take away their computer so they can’t email any more. Keep telling them that the big payout is not real and never was real, and that any money they have sent is gone and they will never get it back. Scam Detective: Thank you John. John: You are welcome. Thank you for talking to me again. At the conclusion of part 2 of this interview, I said that “John” should feel guilt for the rest of his life for what he has done to his victims. I recognise that this was anger talking and I should not have said it. “John” seems to be an intelligent, articulate young man who, with the right guidance and influences, could put his considerable talents to good use. If he continues his education and is able to put his past behind him and pursue a worthwhile and rewarding career then he could achieve this. He could, however, just as easily slip back into the high risk/reward lifestyle that experienced in his youth and spend the rest of his life in and out of prison. I hope that his choices lead him down the right path.