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Nigerian scam costs victims thousands

Friday, February 28, 2003

By David B. Caruso, The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- From the start, Desiree Tilley was suspicious of the Nigerian businesswoman who bid $4,000 for her car on an Internet auction site.

It especially didn't seem right that the woman wanted to overpay, and then have Tilley wire her a refund. But when a cashier's check for $9,800 arrived in the mail, and the bank cleared it, Tilley figured she had nothing to lose.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher said yesterday that Tilley was one of several people defrauded of thousands of dollars in recent months by con artists paying for online purchases with counterfeit cashier's checks.

Three weeks after wiring the refund to a Western Union office in Nigeria, Tilley got a horrifying call from her bank. The check had been fake. The bank wanted its money back.

"I was stunned," she said. "The check cleared. The money is gone. Where am I going to get $9,800?"

In two other cases, similar forgeries were good enough to fool banks into cashing checks for $12,500 and $4,200. In a fourth, a phony check written to a Bucks County man was detected as a fake and did not clear. In each case the buyer had sought to overpay for an item and requested that a refund be wired to Nigeria.

Efforts to track the scam artists overseas have been unsuccessful, Fisher said.

Investigators believe the scheme may have been invented by the same Nigerian con artists who sent thousands of letters to U.S. citizens in the 1990s, falsely promising multimillion-dollar bribes if they would allow use of their bank accounts to launder stolen money.

Worried that still more phony checks could be outstanding, or in the mail, Fisher warned consumers selling things online to wait at least four weeks after a cashier's check clears before completing the sale.

"Be very careful in dealing with any foreign purchasers," Fisher said.

In the meantime, he asked banks that processed the counterfeit checks to refrain from going after victims like Tilley, saying the institutions bore some responsibility for failing to catch the forgeries.

"The bank has such greater resources," Fisher said. "Hopefully the bank will consider not pursuing this claim against her."

Tilley, 20, of Bensalem, said that after wiring the money to Nigeria she got two more e-mails from the buyer, both asking for money to pay unforeseen shipping costs. She ignored them.

Luckily, she still has her car, a 1981 Chevy El Camino. The bank rejected the cashier's check before arrangements to ship it were complete.

Still, she said she is fearful the bank will make good on its threat to take legal action if she doesn't find a way to return the money.

Other victims included a woman in Rebersburg, Centre County, who was given a fake $4,200 check to pay for a $516 puppy she was selling on the Internet. The woman wired the buyer a $3,684 refund before the bank realized the check was a fake.

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