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Published: Monday, 9/20/2004

Delete those Nigerian e-mails

IF IT sounds too good to be true, it probably is. How many times have we all heard it?

No doubt a Washington Township man wishes he had remembered that sage advice. Instead he stands to lose as much as $97,000 in an Internet scam that's familiar to almost anyone who gets e-mail.

An extremely friendly sounding e-mail arrives in your in-box suggesting that you can do a real service to somebody overseas, usually in Nigeria, and in return receive a big chunk of a sizable fortune.

The usual pitch: Some prominent Nigerian official or citizen has supposedly died, leaving behind all this money, and the only way to get at it is to enlist the help of an American and his bank account.

To make a long story short, if you respond, you lose.

The fraud is known as a 419 scam after the section of the criminal code in Nigeria that outlaws the practice. But outlawed or not, the solicitations keep coming, and even if only one person in 10,000 takes the bait, the perpetrator wins. The Secret Service, which investigates these scams, says hundreds of millions of dollars are lost each year to them.

And they don't all come from Nigeria. One colleague of ours received a similar pitch from South Africa.

The plan in which the gentleman from Washington Township invested was fictitious but his financial loss is all-too real. His bank has frozen his account and is holding him responsible for a $48,000 check that proved to be fraudulent.

Similar scams operated before the explosive growth of the Internet. The principle was the same: Spin a tale, and con an unsuspecting victim into ante-ing up cash. What was once known as the pigeon drop has gone high-tech.

Today the schemes are worldwide, and the stakes higher. Earlier this year several Nigerians went on trial in that country for a scheme that conned a bank employee in Brazil into handing over $242 million of the bank's funds on the promise of a $13 million commission.

Nigeria has promised to take a tougher stand against the scams, but the key to defeating them lies in not being a victim. Washington Township Police Chief Chris Kaiser says it's a matter of common sense.

And remembering, we would add, that just because some sayings are cliches doesn't mean they aren't true.

Like there being no such thing as a free lunch.

Or free money.

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