NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
I recently received an e-mail soliciting help to recover the family fortune of an African dictator. I have heard of these online scams before, and would like to report it to the appropriate authorities. Can you tell me where I could forward the e-mail?
-- Mike Lockhart, Portland, Oregon
What a coincidence! Just the other day I got an incredible offer from someone who claimed to be the auditor of a bank in South Africa who was seeking my help in transferring $126,000,000 dollars that was purportedly in an account that was "floating" because the owner of the account died without an heir.
The auditor assured me that if I helped I would receive 35 percent of the sum of money transferred, while the other 60 percent would go to him and another 5 percent would go toward expenses. Hey, that's $44 million to yours truly just for being a Good Samaritan!
The auditor didn't specifically ask me for any money in connection with this scheme. But I'm sure that were I to follow up on this offer, one way or another I would be asked to provide some kind of payment as a show of good faith or to pay fees or taxes or bribes or whatever.
The classic "419" scam
What you and I are both dealing with here is an "advance fee" scam, also known as a "419" scheme after the section of the Nigerian penal code that deals with such scams. These have been going on for years, but I suppose that with the advent of the Internet the con artists behind these boondoggles are extending their reach.
Apparently, most of these schemes are run out Nigeria, although the "bank auditor" who e-mailed me claimed to be from South Africa. Perhaps he figures people are catching on to the Nigerian connection, or maybe this swindle is being exported to other African countries.
There are lots of variations on this rip-offs. Usually, it starts with a person claiming to be a government official or someone representing a foreign institution or agency who offers to transfer huge amounts of money into your bank account. But the scheme itself may involve real estate or crude oil or converting foreign currency or transferring "floating" funds, but somehow there's the promise of a big payoff for you.
If you follow up, you'll get lots of documents with stamps and seals that give the scheme a vaguely official air about it. And, eventually, you'll be asked to pay a fee upfront in order to get your payoff, although in some cases, these flim flam artists may try to convince you that you must travel to Europe or Africa to complete the transaction.
I find it hard to believe that anyone could fall for such an absurd offer, but apparently some poor souls do. If you know anyone who has been victimized by this scheme, you should tell them to contact the United States Secret Service, Financial Crimes division by e-mail or phone (202-406-5850). If you've received a solicitation but haven't bitten, the Secret Service would like you to fax them a copy of the letter (202-406-5031).
As for the offer I received from that friendly South African bank auditor, well, as tempting as receiving $44 million for virtually no work sounds, I think I'll pass. I'm an investor, after all, so if I'm going to my dreams of easy money dashed, I prefer to do it with aggressive growth stocks.
Walter Updegrave is a senior editor at MONEY Magazine and is the author of "Investing for the Financially Challenged." He can be seen regularly Monday mornings at 7:40 am on CNNfn.