Keeping up with princely scams

thumb_bzi_ris_glb_ve_2015_resize_1024_0Lagos is, in its own way, a fantastic and vibrant city. It was there, 7 years ago, under the auspices of an internship, that I developed an interest in fraud, and, ultimately, forensics.
That isn’t to say that Nigeria is correctly adjudged as the world’s epicenter of fraud. Fraud is a very international phenomenon. But I just said ‘Nigeria’ and ‘fraud’ in one sentence. You’re inevitably thinking of e-mail scams, probably of the dead-prince variety, starring you as an unassuming foreigner well-placed to inherit his riches.

These scams are widely known as 419 scams, in reference to article 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code, the article relevant to fraud. Surprisingly, perhaps, statistics actually show that less than 10% of these scams originate in Nigeria. Americans are responsible for over 60%. Not for the first or last time, statistics tell one story and perception another.

Perception, of course, is everything in a scam. E-mail scammers with uneven English will have a hard time convincing you that they are the bankers of your dead multi-millionaire estranged cousin. That is partly why so few of them are successful – less than 1%.

But some scammers have really honed their methods; I’m exposed to complex schemes that involve the fraudsters calling their targets, scheduling meetings, and setting up websites for their fictitious companies. Typically, the scheme at hand is one that finds its origins in the dead prince scam –the fraudsters make big claims about money their fictitious company is looking to invest but – further down the line – ask the target for an advance fee before the investment can be made.

Don’t tell the scammers I said this, but in business intelligence, we enjoy complex schemes. The irony, if you will, is that the more effort a fraudster puts into scheme, the more fodder they give us to expose them.

Say, for example, in a bid to appear more credible, a fraudster goes through the lengths of undertaking a real – albeit small – financial transaction with another business. With some clever PR work, the fraudster should be able to get the media to cover the transaction – landing his fictitious company a genuine mention in a business newspaper. A scammer armed with a genuine reference – a scary prospect, indeed.

Unbeknownst to the scammer, however, his hard work is fairly easy to unravel, if you have the right mindset. In this example, we could; speak to the journalist that covered the story; speak to other sources ‘close’ to the transaction; and search the internet and other databases for other references to the fictitious company (and presumably find none). Pretty soon, there would be only one story we could tell: that of an unknown company appearing out of nowhere making a lot of noise about an insignificant transaction. Proceed with caution, if at all.

Occasionally, it’s even easier than that. The websites the fraudsters create for their fictitious companies – as professional as they may look – offer a lot of damning information, if you know how to access it: the websites’ (recent) creation date, the (minimal) traffic to the website, and, typically, that the text on the website is plagiarized. All of them fatal blows, even for a dead prince.

by: Roberto Maluf, assistant manager, Forensic – Business Intelligence Services, Deloitte Middle East

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