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  • Nigerian scam artists target thousands of Americans

    By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN Times Senior Correspondent

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 19, 1997


    In exploring business ties with Nigeria, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, Bernice Edwards and their colleagues might keep this in mind: They are dealing with a nation that is synonymous with scams.

    Nigerian white-collar crooks have ripped off so many individuals, companies and charities worldwide that they're keeping investigators busy in more than 60 countries.

    In the United States alone, the Secret Service has 12 task forces, including one in South Florida, examining Nigerian get-rich-quick schemes. Both the State Department and the Commerce Department have issued warnings about the scams. And attorneys general nationwide have been inundated with tens of thousands of fraudulent come-ons sent to residents of their states.

    "There's a tremendous creative effort that scamsters in Nigeria have put toward generating letters of temptation," says Jim Charlet, a director of the U.S. Commerce Department in Nashville.

    "In a frustrated sense, you think, "Gee, if only they'd put the same kind of effort into developing legitimate business opportunities, where would they be?' "

    Before his wife was accused of setting fire to the house he owns with Edwards, Lyons, Edwards and more than a dozen others were touring Nigeria in what the pastor has called a humanitarian mission to assess the country's needs. But they also talked to the ministers of oil and housing, and an Associated Press writer who covered the group's visit -- paid for by the Nigerian government -- reports that they submitted business proposals to most of the officials they met.

    There's nothing to suggest that anything untoward went on in the Nigerians' talks with Lyons, president of the 8.5-million-member National Baptist Convention USA, or with his compatriots. But the warnings that emanate all too often from credible sources should give pause to anyone who considers doing business with Nigeria or Nigerian interests.

    "A major and continuing problem is the commercial scam or sting that targets foreigners, including many U.S. citizens," says a State Department advisory. "The scams generally involve phony offers of either outright money transfers, lucrative sales or contracts with promises of large commissions or up-front payments."

    And, the advisory continues, "the apparent use in some scams of actual government stationery . . . is grounds for concern that some individual Nigerian officials may be involved in these activities."

    The oldest and most common of the scams appears to be a letter asking for the recipient's help in transferring a large sum of money to a U.S. bank account.

    In many cases, the writer claims to be a government official or civil servant who has discovered funds from a previous regime that need to be deposited aboard. In another twist, a Zephyrhills man recently received a letter from a "Dr. Felix Abam of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corp." saying his business successfully inflated a government contract but needed an "honest and trusted" individual to transfer the $23.5-million overseas.

    The partner's promised share? A hefty 30 percent, or more than $7-million.

    While the variations are endless, one thing never changes: a request for the recipient's bank account number and other financial data. Armed with such information, the con artist can then plunder an individual or corporate account.

    The letters, dubbed 419 Scams for the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with swindles, typically target individuals and small businesses whose names have been obtained from legitimate mailing lists and trade journals. But companies as big as General Dynamics and yes, the St. Petersburg Times, also receive letters with regularity.

    In recent years the scams have become more sophisticated. There is, for example, the "benefactor of will" fraud, in which a church, hospital or charity is notified that a wealthy Nigerian who admired the organization has died and left it millions of dollars. Before the beneficiary can get the money, though, it must provide its bank account number and pay certain processing fees.

    Other targets have included U.S. companies selling durable goods -- tractors, generators and so on. The con artist may hand over cash for a small shipment, then -- having built up trust with the seller -- places a large order and pays with a counterfeit check.

    "One used-clothing company in North Carolina lost $300,000 and that's just a small example," says Jim Caldwell, a Secret Service agent investigating the scams as part of the U.S. government's 419 Operation.

    The Nigerian scams first surfaced several years ago in England, but British officials quickly notified their U.S. counterparts because so many victims were American.

    To date, the letter scams alone are estimated to have cost U.S. businesses more than $200-million. A government data base contains copies of 50,000 letters, with more coming in all the time. There have been search warrants and arrests, but so far not a single successful prosecution of a Nigerian scamster.

    "The ultimate question," Caldwell says, "is whether the government of Nigeria is involved in these things.

    "Our answer is that we've never seen a direct link between any type of these criminal activities and government officials. But Nigeria has been under military dictatorships for 27 of 37 years (of independence). The infrastructure is falling apart, law enforcement is very poorly paid and equipped, unemployment is high. They've certainly created an atmosphere conducive to graft and corruption. I can see what's led to this situation, which is a virtual emigration of criminality throughout the world."


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