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.
Phil Banko/Getty Images
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.
But, oops, it's not an application form for a business venture; instead, it requests that I declare myself "next of kin" to a dead tycoon — "the late George Black," who died conveniently in a plane crash in 2003 — and left $15.5 million in a bank account.
Ben: You appear to have made a mistake, as I have no dead relative named George Black.
Zongo: I send you now a new application so you apply as Business Partner of the Deceased and not next-of-kin.
Over the next several weeks:
Zongo: Give me your private number so I can call you. I want to speak with you immediately.
Ben: I lost my cellphone and there's a 10-day waiting period for replacements, just like guns.
Zongo: I must have today the form of the deceased customer George Black to firstname.lastname@example.org with your bank account.
Ben: Before I can, I need to know your astrological sign. I'm a Capricorn and only give such information to people with a suitable zodiac sign.
Zongo: I'm a Christian.
Zongo: You still did not send the application to the bank as i instructed. They are very angry.
Ben: I just sent the form — to the real Bank of Africa email address, not the address you gave me.
Zongo is never heard from again.
ACT 3: Courting Theresa
One day after receiving Zongo's first email, I reply with an email signed by one Theresa DeGraci, a more cooperative version of me.
Theresa: Dear Mr. Zongo: I received your letter seeking assistance in transferring funds into my account. I am honored to be chosen for such a generous offer, as I am a widow, age 72, living on a meager fixed income. What do I need to do to earn your proposed commission?
Zongo: Just as I promised you in my last mail, below is the application format which you will re-write and send to the bank with email address given below.
I feed out phony information about Theresa. She has a nonexistent house in Detroit. She can't afford a phone or passport. Her bank is the also nonexistent South Michigan Automakers' Consumer Savings — SMACS ("scams" spelled backward). Her account number contains more than 20 digits, twice the typical number, which supposed business consultant Zongo doesn't notice. This first correspondence includes the George Black kinship form.
Theresa: I never knew I had a millionaire relative named George Black so I cannot answer these questions to get my millions.
Zongo: Bellow is the answers.
Under occupation on the kinship application form, George Black is listed as "tourist." Theresa submits Zongo's answers as instructed. An email soon arrives titled "Approval as Next of Kin from Bank of Africa Co-Operate Headquarters."
Enter two new characters: Dr. Attan Kizito and Hon. Barrister Larry Bobo, who, Zongo reports, have been assigned to facilitate the transfer.
Dr. Attan Kizito: To enable this fund to be in your name and make the transfer easy, you will effect with the minimum sum of $7,210 because it has been dormant since the deceased client died.
Zongo (who writes twice daily): When will the transfer arrive?
Theresa: Sadly, I only have $3,000 to my name. And my rent is due next week.
Zongo: Dear Sister Theresa: Hon: Barrister Larry Bobo told me that you will transfer $3,000. I have to assist by paying the sum of $4,210 if you make sure you send the money tomorrow.
Theresa: I went to my bank for a bank-to-bank transfer and was told there is no Attan Kizito at Bank of Africa, and that Mr. Larry's emails area scam.
Zongo (minutes later): Larry is not be happy to hear that you or your bank call him a fraud. Withdraw the money from your account and send it through Western Union while I try and convince the lawyer not to be angry. You write an apology letter while I plead with him to understand this is not your fault as you are old.
Theresa (six weeks later): Before I go to Western Union, I ask that you send me a photo showing your kind face. I imagine that you are quite handsome.
Zongo: Here is my passport.
It has the same name and number as the one he sent Ben, but with a different photo.
Theresa (after emailing Zongo the passport that was sent to Ben): Bad news, my Zongo. There is an imposter using your name and passport number. See?
Zongo: All I will say is that people may be using my name to do bad. Therefore, if you can not trust me, it is better that I look for another person who is a relative of the late George Black.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.