Those Pesky Nigerian Scam Letters

Pssssssst. Heard the one about the foreign contractor who completed all of his construction projects, only to leave $40.5 million in surplus government funds sitting in the Central Bank of Nigeria? Or how about the $31.3 million from intentionally over-inflated contracts that was uncovered by the Nigerian Contracts Review Panel?

What about the tale about the Contract Awards Committee that discovered $18.5 million in an account that was over-invoiced by the Nigerian Petroleum Corporation? Or the Special Nigerian Committee for Budget and Planning that found $37.5 million from an undeclared windfall resulting from the sale of crude oil during the Persian Gulf War?

Or perhaps you've heard the one about the $25 million left in a campaign account following the untimely death of a former Nigerian head of state?

Why are you getting letters, e-mails and faxes telling you about these hidden riches? Because gullible victims are being solicited by con artists who are claiming that anyone assisting in the transfer of these foreign funds will get to keep some of the bounty. In case you haven't guessed it yet, these are all nothing more than hoaxes designed to obtain your personal banking information.

How can you tell these are scams? Well, there are a couple of common traits to all of these letters. First, the letters generally use the term "strictly confidential" or some similar phrase. This should be your first clue that the letter is a scam. Con artists generally try to isolate their victims and operate in secrecy. To avoid detection, they pressure their victims to not tell anyone about their transactions by cloaking them in strict secrecy. Many of the Nigerian letters making the rounds warn readers to treat the transaction with secrecy, confidentiality and urgency. These are the unmistakable signs of a financial scam.

Also quite often, the letters are riddled with clumsy terminology and spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. Here's a typical sample taken directly from one of the scam letters making the rounds: "I have the privilege to request for your assistance regarding the transfer of funds placed in a suspense account at the Central Bank of Nigeria."

So what exactly do these letters ask the unsuspecting victim to do? In all of these scams, thieves posing as foreign government officials seek the assistance of their victims to transfer huge sums of money into foreign bank accounts. They need your help, the letters claim, because the money is frozen in a foreign country and must be transferred elsewhere in order to be freed up. Sometimes, victims are directed to pay money up-front. Other times, it's nothing more than a ploy to access victims' personal banking information, such as account numbers. Victims are told that if they provide their personal banking information, millions of dollars will be temporarily deposited into their accounts. In exchange, victims are promised that they will be able to keep some of the money once the transaction is completed.

Of course, none of this is legitimate. People who are tricked into believing these stories give up their banking information, only to find that thieves have used the information to make unauthorized withdrawals from victims' accounts. And once the money is gone, there's very little you can do to get it back.

Here's the bottom line: Never give out personal financial, banking or credit card information to someone you don't know. In the wrong hands, this information can be used to drain your bank.