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Nigerians running lucrative swindles; Trail leads to man in North Versailles

Sunday, January 18, 2004

By Torsten Ove, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A small game of deceit played out two weeks ago in North Versailles.

On Jan. 2, a United Parcel Service deliveryman showed up at a Della Drive apartment with a package addressed to Ken Smith.

A man answered the door and signed for the parcel, which contained more than $200,000 worth of cashier's checks.

But nothing was as it seemed.

The UPS man was really a U.S. postal inspector.

Ken Smith was really a Nigerian named Adebayo B. Adedimila.

And the cashier's checks? Counterfeit.

Adedimila, 28, was taken into custody and faces charges in federal court of trying to defraud 20 people in an Internet auction scheme that is increasingly popular among endlessly resourceful Nigerians.

The con is a version of the old "Nigerian 419" scam, named for Section 419 of the Nigerian penal code.

"That's their latest trick," said Jeff Eisenbeiser, head of the U.S. Secret Service in Pittsburgh.

Adedimila's arrest represents a tiny victory in the battle against Nigerian rip-off artists who have been preying on Americans for 20 years.

The schemes started in the early 1980s with letters and faxes sent to businesses. But the Internet has opened up a world of potential marks, leading to a flood of e-mail solicitations.

Among them are the familiar spam messages from West Africans who have a "VERY URGENT BUSINESS PROPOSAL" and need your help transferring millions of dollars from a secret account in Africa to yours in America.

But it's the auction scheme that is proving more lucrative.

"This is 10 times larger than that," said U.S. Postal Inspector Andrew Richards, head of the Financial Crimes Task Force of Southwestern Pennsylvania. "Instead of going for $60 million, they're going for $6,000. They're going for smaller amounts and they are being incredibly successful."

Typically, a Nigerian will contact a person trying to sell something on Internet auction sites such as eBay.

He tells the seller that he has a "friend" in the United States who owes him money. He says the friend will send the seller a cashier's check, but the check will be for a few thousand dollars more than the item costs.

The check is then shipped to the cohort in the United States -- this was Adedimila's role, federal agents say -- who sends it to the unsuspecting seller through the U.S. mail.

Finally, the buyer asks the seller to send back the extra money by Western Union wire. Some do, and never see their money again.

"Often, the sellers act as requested and wire the additional funds prior to the cashier's check being returned as counterfeit to the seller's bank," said Postal Inspector Joseph Bell in a search warrant affidavit for Adedimila's apartment. "This scheme has affected thousands of victims across the United States and resulted in the loss of millions of dollars."

Some potential victims are smart enough not to be taken.

Two men in Michigan and Georgia were potential marks for Adedimila and his partner in Lagos, Nigeria, who sometimes used the name David Nelson online.

Chris Odom, a photographer from Athens, Ga., was contacted by Nelson last month when he was trying to sell a Nikon camera for $3,750 on a professional sports photography auction site.

Nelson initially bid $4,000.

But later he sent this note, written in the kind of halting English that agents say scammers use to make themselves seem authentic:

"Hello Chris, I must tell you that payment will be in excess of $8,000. I have contacted a friend of mine owing me in USA to make the payment on my behalf to you. I have also instructed him to issue out the check for the amount of $8,000 on your name. After you might have received the check from my client you will need to deduct the cost (of the camera) and have my balance sent to me through Western Union money transfer to London, England, and through my personal assistance name. Reason is because I'm presently out of town for a professional conference in South Africa. David Nelson."

Odom thought the request was bizarre.

"I had a suspicion it was some sort of scam," he said last week.

"If you are serious, you do not need to send a money order to me for $8,000," he wrote back. "The [camera] is for $4,000 and that is well enough with shipping and insurance."

William Corne III, 19, of Saginaw, Mich., didn't fall for the scheme, either. He was selling a subwoofer on eBay for $170, but Nelson wanted to send him $5,000.

"I thought it was ridiculously strange," he said.

Nelson sent the cashier's checks anyway, and did the same for 20 others he had contacted in the U.S. and Canada.

Agents say that's typical, because while most potential marks won't wire back any money, one or two might.

"It's definitely a volume business," Eisenbeiser said.

It works in part because the cashier's checks look so good.

"I've seen them. I defy you to tell they are not real," said Barbara Petito, spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office.

But Nelson apparently didn't count on "Operation Tidalwave," an international crackdown on Nigerian fraud.

On Dec. 23, British customs agents at London's Heathrow Airport intercepted a package of checks originating from Lagos and bound for Ken Smith in North Versailles.

Inspectors found $226,000 worth of phony cashier's checks in the names of Odom, Corne and 18 others. Postal inspectors set up a delivery in which one of them would pose as a deliveryman. That's what happened Jan. 2, when Adedimila was arrested.

The U.S. attorney's office asked that he be detained as a flight risk, but a federal magistrate released him to stay with a Nigerian friend in Turtle Creek. No one there could be reached for comment.

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said she couldn't comment on whether investigators had arrested or were seeking Nelson or anyone else working with Adedimila.

But she said the case would be among several local prosecutions highlighted next month when her office and the Financial Crimes Task Force conducts an awareness program on 419 schemes and other cons.

"We plan to educate the public about these," she said. "We are going to focus on international fraud schemes."

Those include more traditional 419s, such as the spam messages flooding in-boxes worldwide.

The sender often claims to be an "official" or perhaps the son of some deposed leader who was murdered, imprisoned or killed in a terrible plane crash. He's the only one who knows millions of dollars were hidden away just before the tragic death. But the funds will remain frozen until they can be secretly transferred to a private account -- yours.

If you help, you're supposed to get a cut of the total. But as you get drawn in, you are eventually asked to help finance the transaction, sometimes to the point of traveling to Nigeria or a neighboring country.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette gets pitches like this every day, including this one last week:

"I am contacting you because of my need to deal with persons whom my family and I can lay trust and personal relationships on. Since the murder of my father, I have been subjected to all sorts of harassment and intimidation with lots of negative reports emanating from the Government and the press about my family. The present Government has also ensured that our bank accounts are frozen and all assets seized. It is in view of this that I seek your cooperation and assistance in the transfer of the sum of Thirty Million United States Dollars (US$30,000,000.00) being the very last hope for my family and I."

Lately these e-mails seem to be coming from other nations besides Nigeria, such as Liberia, Sri Lanka and even China and the United Kingdom.

Some are from copycats, but most are sent by Nigerians, either in those countries or routed through someone there, according to investigators.

"It's all Nigerian," said Charles Pascale of Harrisonburg, Va., head of the 419 Coalition, a citizens group devoted to educating the public about the schemes. "It's really a cottage industry in Nigeria. It might be said that, after football, it's the national sport of Nigeria."

No one can say for sure why.

"The Nigerian government blames the growing problem on mass unemployment, extended family systems, a get-rich-quick syndrome, and, especially, the greed of foreigners," says a Secret Service 419 advisory.

The Secret Service fields 450 complaints a day, but stopping the scammers is difficult. Agents have arrested some 250 people there in recent years, but the 419 Coalition says most of those suspects were never punished because Nigerian authorities are uncooperative.

Federal agencies have long identified specific versions of the 419. There's the bogus real estate deal, the crude oil for below-market-prices deal, even the "bill-washing" scam in which the mark travels to Nigeria, eyeballs a suitcase full of cash and is talked into paying thousands for chemicals to clean black powder off the bills.

The e-mails introducing these deals seem like obvious scams. So why do people fall for them?

"Greed is a major reason," Buchanan said. "Second, people are often more trusting than they should be. Particularly older people."

Many victims are too embarrassed to pursue a prosecution, Buchanan said, but her office has received complaints. Some victims have flown to Nigeria to try to collect, a very bad move. An American was murdered in Lagos in 1995 pursuing a 419 payoff.

"There's a perception that no one is prone to this kind of thing," Eisenbeiser said. "But a large number of individuals are enticed into believing they've been singled out to share in a windfall. The victims run the gamut. The elderly. Businessmen. Doctors. Lawyers. No one would think it could happen to them."


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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