THE PERFECT MARK: How a Massachusetts psychotherapist fell for a Nigerian e-mail scam.


Copyright The New Yorker 2006-05-15
Late one afternoon in June, 2001, John W Worley sat in a burgundy leather desk chai reading his e-mail. He was fifty-seven an burly, with glasses, a fringe of salt-and-peppe hair, and a bushy gray beard. A decorate Vietnam veteran and an ordained minister, h had a busy practice as a Christia psychotherapist, and, with his wife, Barbara was the caretaker of a mansion on a histori estate in Groton, Massachusetts. He lived in comfortable three-bedroom suite in th mansion, and saw patients in a ground-floo office with walls adorned with images of Jesu and framed military medals. Barbara had bee his high-school sweetheartóhe was th president of his class, and she was th homecoming queenóand they had fou daughters and seven grandchildren, whos photos surrounded Worley at his desk
Worley scrolled through his in-box and opened an e-mail, addressed to ìCEO/Owner.î The writer said that his name was Captain Joshua Mbote, and he offered an awkwardly phrased proposition: ìWith regards to your trustworthiness and reliability, I decided to seek your assistance in transferring some money out of South Africa into your country, for onward dispatch and investment.î Mbote explained that he had been chief of security for the Congolese President Laurent Kabila, who had secretly sent him to South Africa to buy weapons for a force of Èlite bodyguards. But Kabila had been assassinated before Mbote could complete the mission. ìI quickly decided to stop all negotiations and divert the funds to my personal use, as it was a golden opportunity, and I could not return to my country due to my loyalty to the government of Laurent Kabila,î Mbote wrote. Now Mbote had fifty-five million American dollars, in cash, and he needed a discreet partner with an overseas bank account. That partner, of course, would be richly rewarded.
Mboteís offer had the hallmarks of an advance-fee fraud, a swindle whose victims are asked to provide money, information, or services in exchange for a share of a promised fortune. Countless such e-mails, letters, and faxes are sent every year, with a broad variety of stories about how the money supposedly became available (unclaimed estate, corrupt executive, and dying Samaritan being only a few of the most popular). Worley, who had spent his adult life advocating self-knowledge and introspection, seemed particularly unlikely to be fooled. He had developed a psychological profiling tool designed to reveal a personís ìunique needs, desires and probable behavioral responses.î He promised users of the test, ìThe individualís understanding of self will be greatly enhanced, increasing the potential for a fulfilled and balanced life.î And Worley was vigilant against temptation. Two weeks before the e-mail arrived, he had been the keynote speaker at his eldest granddaughterís graduation from the First Assembly Christian Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts. He cautioned the students about Satan, telling them, ìHeís going to be trying to destroy you every inch of the way.î
Still, Worley, faced with an e-mail that would, according to federal authorities, eventually lead him to join a gang of Nigerian criminals seeking to defraud U.S. banks, didnít hesitate. A few minutes after receiving Mboteís entreaty, he replied, ìI can help and I am interested.î His only question was how Mbote had found him, and he seemed satisfied with the explanation: that the South African Department of Home Affairs had supplied his name. When Worley attributed this improbable event to Godís will, Mbote elaborated on the story to say that Worleyís name was one of ten that he had been given, and that it had been pulled from a hat after much prayer by someone named Pastor Mark. (A more likely possibility is that his e-mail address was plucked from an Internet chain letter, which he received and passed on, that promised a cash reward from Microsoft to anyone who forwarded the letter to others.) In e-mails, phone calls, faxes, and letters during the ensuing weeks, Mbote laid out the plan: If Worley would pay up-front costs, such as fees to a storage facility where the cash was being kept, and possibly travel to South Africa to collect the money, he would receive thirty per cent, or more than sixteen million dollars.
Worley told Mbote that he lived his life with the ìutmost integrityî and didnít want to jeopardize that. He also said that he couldnít fund the operation. (Though he would report nearly a hundred and forty thousand dollars in income in 2001, he had declared personal bankruptcy in the early nineties, had relatively little saved for retirement, and wanted to help his grandchildren through college.) No problem, Mbote answered; ìinvestorsî would provide up to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for airfare and other expenses needed to move the money to the United States, while Worley would act as middleman and curator of the funds.
As promised, in late August, 2001, Worley received a check for forty-seven thousand five hundred dollars, purportedly from one such investor. It was from an account belonging to the Syms Corporation, the discount-clothing chain whose slogan is ìAn Educated Consumer Is Our Best Customer.î Worley was wary. He called the Fleet Bank in Portland, Maine, where the check had been drawn. The bank told him it was an altered duplicate of a check that Syms had paid to the Maryland office of an international luggage manufacturer.
Every swindle is driven by a desire for eas money; itís the one thing the swindler and th swindled have in common. Advance-fee frau is an especially durable con. In an earl variation, the Spanish Prisoner Letter, whic dates to the sixteenth century, scammers wrot to English gentry and pleaded for help i freeing a fictitious wealthy countryman wh was imprisoned in Spain. Today, the co usually relies on e-mail and is often called a 41 scheme, after the anti-fraud section of th criminal code in Nigeria, where it flourishes (Last year, a Nigerian comic released a son that taunted Westerners with the lyrics ìI g chop your dollar. I go take your money an disappear. Four-one-nine is just a game. Yo are the loser and I am the winner.î) Th scammers, who often operate in crime rings, ar known as ìyahoo-yahoo boys,î because the frequently use free Yahoo accounts. Many o them live in a suburb of Lagos called Festa Town. Last year, one scammer in Festac Tow told the Associated Press, ìNow I have thre cars, I have two houses, and Iím not looking fo a job anymore.
According to a statement posted on the Internet by the U.S. State Department, 419 schemes began to proliferate in the mid-nineteen-eighties, when a collapse in oil prices caused severe economic upheaval in Nigeria. The populationóliterate, English-speaking, and living with widespread government corruptionófaced poverty and rising unemployment. These conditions created a culture of scammers, some of them violent. Marks are often encouraged to travel to Nigeria or to other countries, where they fall victim to kidnapping, extortion, and, in rare cases, murder. In the nineteen-nineties, at least fifteen foreign businessmen, including one American, were killed after being lured to Nigeria by 419 scammers. Until recently, Nigerian officials tended to blame the marks. ìThere would be no 419 scam if there are no greedy, credulous and criminally-minded victims ready to reap where they did not sow,î the Nigerian Embassy in Washington said in a 2003 statement. The following year, Nuhu Ribadu, the chairman of Nigeriaís Economic & Financial Crimes Commission, noted that not one scammer was behind bars. Last November, however, Ribaduís commission convicted two crime bosses who had enticed a Brazilian banker to spend two hundred and forty-two million dollars of his employerís money on a fictitious airport-development deal. (Prosecutions by U.S. authorities are rare; most victims donít know the real names of their ìpartners,î and 419 swindlers are adept at covering their tracks.)
Despite Nigeriaís efforts, the schemes have reached ìepidemic proportions,î according to a publication by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The agency received more than fifty-five thousand complaints about them last year, nearly six times as many as in 2001. The increase is due in part to the Internet, which makes it easy for scammers to reach potential marks in wealthier countries. ìIf we educate the public to the point where nobody falls for it, then theyíll go out of business,î Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the Secret Service, the lead U.S. agency in investigating advance-fee frauds, says. The agency estimates that 419 swindlers gross hundreds of millions of dollars a year, not including losses by victims too embarrassed to complain. In February, the son of a prominent California psychiatrist named Louis A. Gottschalkóhe identified what turned out to be early signs of Alzheimerís in Ronald Reagan after analyzing his speechófiled suit seeking to remove his father from control over a family partnership, claiming that Gottschalk had lost more than a million dollars to Nigerian scammers. Some victims try to pass along their losses. The former Iowa congressman Edward Mezvinsky, who had refashioned himself as an international businessman, was caught up in a 419 scam, and during the nineteen-nineties stole from his law clients, friends, and even his mother-in-law to cover his losses. He is serving more than six years in prison after pleading guilty to thirty-one counts of fraud.
Robert B. Reich, the former Labor Secretary, who has studied the psychology of market behavior, says, ìAmerican culture is uniquely prone to the ëtoo good to missí fallacy. ëOpportunityí is our favorite word. What may seem reckless and feckless and hapless to people in many parts of the world seems a justifiable risk to Americans.î But appetite for risk is only part of it. A mark must be willing to pursue a fortune of questionable origin. The mind-set was best explained by the linguist David W. Maurer in his classic 1940 book, ìThe Big Conî: ìAs the lust for large and easy profits is fanned into a hot flame, the mark puts all his scruples behind him. He closes out his bank account, liquidates his property, borrows from his friends, embezzles from his employer or his clients. In the mad frenzy of cheating someone else, he is unaware of the fact that he is the real victim, carefully selected and fatted for the kill. Thus arises the trite but none the less sage maxim: ëYou canít cheat an honest man.í î
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