It was 1970 when I first saw one of those letters that offer you a fortune if you just help someone transfer money. It was signed by an African prince and arrived at our Philadelphia rowhouse addressed to “Occupant.” Being 12, I marveled at the blue airmail envelope and colorful stamps.
Dad snickered and mumbled something about “stupid people.” It was unclear whether he meant people who fall for that kind of thing or the supposed prince who wasted postage trying to con him.
Today, I see these letters all the time — thanks to the Internet, which allows for mass, stamp-free delivery. They pile up in several email accounts that I maintain under pseudonyms to track trends for Scam Alert. Like Dad, I trash most. But a few months ago, I received a missive from a certain Mr. Zongo Dawa. I decided we just had to connect. And so began a six-week saga of intrigue, deceit and amusement worthy of the silver screen.
ACT 1: The connection
My computer screen displays an incoming email on a Hotmail account. The subject line: Investment and Partnership Proposal.
Sir: I am Mr. Zongo Dawa, business consultant in Burkina Faso. I represent the interest of a top government official here in West African country … entrusted with the responsibility of locating a capable overseas partner with whom we can work to discretely move a large sum of money, in view of adverse political/economic situation here, then work with our overseas partner for setting up business or investing the money there in your country.
Your role will be to provide the necessary assistance/logistics for transferring the sum of (US$15,5 million) money in bank in my country to your country … I am looking for a mature and serious business person with the necessary capability and connections in his country to work with on this proposal. We are ready to pay you 20% as commission for the business after conclusion of the transfer successfully.
I type "Zongo Dawa" into Google. Up come several pages indicating that this man — or more likely several people in several countries using the name — has played various roles: son of an African chief, bank auditor and corporate executive, all seeking to move $15.5 million out of an African nation. Zongo proves prolific in what the FBI calls a "419 scam" — named for the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud.
ACT 2: Courting Ben
I hit the reply key, and so begins a correspondence between Zongo and me, aka Benjamin Botas, a mature and serious man, albeit with a shady résumé.
Ben: Mr. Dawa, I am a 55-year-old businessman in the U.S. who never smiles, willing to assist you. But before we proceed, I must admit that I am currently embezzling funds from my employer to start my own business venture — setting up squirrel farms to harvest an enzyme in their livers. I will produce supplements, falsely claiming this enzyme is the secret to their energy. This enterprise — Nutso Nutritionals — will make you, your client and me millionaires! But first, I must know two things: Are you comfortable dealing with someone of my criminal nature? And what assurances do I have that you are not a scammer?
Zongo (one hour later): I am happy when i receive your reply and i am sending to you my international passport to proof that this is real.
I check the web page 419.bittenus.com/passports/burkinafaso.htm, which shows fake passports sent by African scammers as proof of identity. One passport has the same number and photo as the one Zongo sent me but has another name, Diallo Abou.
Zongo also sends me an application form requesting my name, address, phone number, passport number and bank account, information you should never share with strangers.