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Scam of the week

Updated: Nov 19, 2023

When you work in the American Citizen Service section, fascinating cases present themselves all the time. Among the most outlandish, I think, are the money scams.

Every day, scammers trick unwitting Americans out of thousands, no millions, of dollars through a wide variety of false relationships, hard lies, and emotional blackmail. Victims are promised love, gems, money, apartments, and inheritances from relatives they never even knew they had. They pay and pay and pay, sometimes for years, until they are completely broke. That’s when they sometimes show up at the embassy to ask for a plane ticket back home.

The apartment that didn’t exist

Last week, an older person showed up at the embassy. Having lost everything, including all retirement savings and a house, this person could not even afford to get a one way ticket home. Lured by promises of an apartment in picturesque Hamburg, this senior had spent everything (75k).

This person arrived in Hamburg with two big suitcases, ready to move into an apartment painstakingly paid for. It was quite a feat for someone who couldn’t even walk unassisted. All the way from the Midwest, and there was nothing and nobody there.

419 scams

I first learned about money scams when I worked in Nigeria, back in 2009. These scams were called “419” after Nigeria’s criminal code on fraud. The idea is to promise victims a huge sum of money, but only if they do a small up-front payment, which grows bigger and bigger, milking them for all they’ve got. Some scams are purely about money while others involve fake relationships with fraudsters posing as (beautiful blond) women.

When I was manning the phone for a day at the consular section, I talked to a man who was certain his girlfriend in Nigeria was held by airport security while being on her way to him. He wanted to help her because he thought they were in a relationship (and he was also interested in the diamonds she was supposedly carrying, I’m sure). No matter how long I tried to convince him this girlfriend was probably a group of Nigerian guys in an Internet cafe in Lagos, he was frantic—he’d already sent her considerable amounts of money.

Next, I did a deep dive into these scams because the Ambassador wanted a report on what was happening. It was easy to compile a colorful report about all the scams I heard about online and offline. Not only did scammers extract tens of thousands of dollars from people who thought they were in a relationship, helping a good cause, or paying for a lawyer to obtain an “inheritance”; even those who realized they got scammed often got scammed again in a misguided effort to recuperate their money.

Why do people fall for it?

You might be thinking: how can people be so stupid? You may have received some emails where scammers tried to convince you to contact them to get money, or something else valuable. These emails are often full of typos and outrageous claims. Gmail is pretty good at filtering this stuff out and sending it directly to your spam folder.

But these "typos" and crazy claims are part of the strategy. Someone who is smarter than me told me the other day: “by using bad spelling and promising things that are clearly too good to be true they weed out suspicious people. They don’t want to deal with people who are on to them—they want to find people who are extremely gullible.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Most of us think nobody will ever fall for these type of scams—a Prince from Benin City who wants to share a three million dollar inheritance from some long lost uncle? Yeah right!! But that’s apparently how they can find and focus on people who don’t see straight through their scheme for whatever reason; age, loneliness, kindness, who knows.

What to do about it?

Once I’d learned all of this I wanted to do something to stop it. But I realized I didn’t work in law enforcement or the intelligence service. My priority was and still is to make sure Americans get home safely. And it’s really great to see how my consular colleagues always go the extra mile for Americans who have fallen prey to scammers and mostly just need to go home.

The embassy can provide many things to accomplish this; flight tickets, food, shelter, transportation, passports, phone calls, and even a listening ear. It took me some time to realize that’s actually a lot. It sucks we can’t nail the bandits who run off with the money—at best, we can report patterns and relevant details to our colleagues who are trained to go after criminals.


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