After 80-year-old Alan returns from a trip to the Middle East and Africa, where he visited new “friends” he made online, his wife grows suspicious that he’s involved in a scam and contacts the FBI. That’s when rookie FBI agent Mike gets involved. Over the next nine months, Alan becomes Mike’s informant as they work to prosecute scammers who aren’t even on American soil.
[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:02] They would just be relentless. They would just keep on hounding him for, "Hey, you need to send us money," you know, and they would sometimes impose a sense of urgency, like "Hey, the chemicals are going to expire soon. You need to pay this now." Uh, "There's only a week left, it's going to expire," you know. "If they expire, then that's it. There's no hope for Daniel."
[00:00:23] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Today a couple of scammers get a taste of their own medicine. You hear these stories all the time, and it's so frustrating. A scammer from far away steals thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars from a victim, and gets away with it because there's nothing anyone can do. The criminals are halfway around the world beyond the reach of law enforcement. Well today's story starts like that. Our victim sends hundreds of thousands of dollars overseas, nearly $600,000 when it's all added up, even gets on a plane and flies to the Middle East, to Africa, to meet the criminals. But for once, the story doesn't end there thanks to a rookie FBI agent named Mike, who has a lot of persistence and a crazy idea. If the long arm of the law can't reach the criminals where they are, perhaps he can get them to come to him.
[00:01:24] Bob: But let's begin at the beginning when our victim, a man we'll call Alan, is in a lot of trouble. Agent Mike goes to Alan's home to interview him.
[00:01:35] Mike: It came to our attention almost three years ago, uh in April of 2018. Al's wife actually had approached someone that she knew, I believe from her church who worked in our building, and was telling about how her husband had sent, uh so much money over the past few years to folks on the internet. And that eventually made its way to our supervisor, and I decided to uh, go out and interview uh Alan, uh just to see what was going on.
[00:02:10] Bob: Agent Mike doesn't know very much about the case at that point. He just knows Alan had sent a lot of money to friends he'd met online. And there was this suspicious trip Alan had taken a few months earlier to Dubai and then to Ghana. Mike doesn't like the sound of that, but he has to get the full story out of Alan. Fortunately, Alan cooperates.
[00:02:33] Mike: Alan kind of knew that his wife had brought this to the attention of the FBI. We went to go meet with Alan, myself and my training agent at the time, and you know, we kind of did the whole, showed up in suits, we're the FBI kind of thing just to show that it’s very serious. We kind of just sat down, listened to his story, and I could kind of tell he was already questioning everything that he’d kind of done. I think we probably spent at least an hour, maybe even a couple of hours with him.
[00:03:03] Bob: What was his uh, frame of mind at that point?
[00:03:07] Mike: I think he was like teetering. We were bringing him back into kind of the real world telling him that, you know, these, his quote/unquote girlfriends that he’d been talking to for the past couple of years were actually not even real people. So...
[00:03:23] Bob: But he was sort of ready, and I'm sure once, once someone scheduled a meeting with the FBI, that got him to, to think about things a little bit, I would think.
[00:03:31] Mike: In this instance, yes. In other instances, no. Even having uh the FBI show up with dark suits and sunglasses, to tell you the truth is sometimes that goes poorly.
[00:03:41] Bob: I thought those sunglasses had magic powers. They do in the movies.
[00:03:44] Mike: Uh, only the movies.
[00:03:46] Bob: So Alan starts to fill in the pieces of the story. There's a woman named Precious who says she's a princess, and a man named Eric who says he's her lawyer. For months, they've been telling Alan that Precious is entitled to a huge inheritance, but she needs help getting the money out of the country. So Alan has been fronting them cash to help pay fees and taxes, a lot of cash, and that trip, well Alan actually met Precious and Eric in Dubai, then flew to Ghana so he could inspect the pile of gold bars for himself. That led to even more money, a lot more money. At this point, Alan's wife says that $600,000 is missing from their bank accounts. Maybe it's because Agent Mike was new, or maybe because he likes Alan, or maybe because he saw an opening right at that very first meeting, after all, not many victims meet their internet criminals face to face. But Mike decides he wants to pursue the case, see where the evidence takes him. So with Alan's permission, Mike starts going through Alan's chat logs on his devices and begins to put together a more detailed picture of what happened. Mike takes us back to the very beginning.
[00:05:01] Mike: Yeah, so he had come in contact with Precious as well as a few other uh so-called, you know, Ghanaian or uh, African princesses through Skype. And, uh, when we looked at his queue in his iPad, there's quite a few of these spam calls uh on Skype uh that he was receiving.
[00:05:22] Bob: So some--, somebody named Precious says, hi, you know, how's your day going, and the next thing you know they start talking.
[00:05:29] Mike: So first of all, yes, that’s exactly it. It was just a cold, hey, how are you doing? My name’s Precious.
[00:05:34] Bob: It didn't take long after Precious made the connection that she starts building her relationship with Alan.
[00:05:39] Mike: Well, so to start off with, with the idle chitchat you can see how she really slathered on the, the praise and the, the romance, just long sentences and paragraphs of adulation towards Alan or whoever their victim may be.
[00:05:54] Bob: Oh you’re so funny. Oh your picture is so good-looking, that kind of thing?
[00:05:57] Mike: Yeah, yeah, I love you so much. I think about you all the time, and it’s almost like they all use the same script, because I’ve read so many of these from so many victims and they all sound, you could almost tell which ones are Ghanaian scammers, which ones are Nigerian scammers just based on the way they slather on the praise. I think it was probably maybe a month or two before uh, of just idle chitchat before Precious uh started asking for money. It may have even been sooner.
[00:06:22] Bob: Pretty quickly Alan is hooked.
[00:06:25] Mike: Yeah, it's almost heartbreaking, because when you read the transcripts, you can see how the victim actually thinks it’s real. I mean he’s actually saying things like, "Well when can I meet you," or "Can you send me more pictures?" The scammer usually almost always just returns to, "Oh I love you so much," et cetera, et cetera, you know, "How are you?" that kind of thing. And it’s just so one-sided in terms of the victim is like actually trying to have a relationship, but the scammers are just uh clearly have an agenda on their mind. And then uh, it will, you know, usually transition then to, "Oh, hey something terrible just happened. My mother just got into a car accident," "We’re overseas for the moment," or "My, my dad’s uh late on his rent," or "I’m late on my rent," or something like that. "Can you just send me, MoneyGram me uh, 500 bucks, " or something like that.
[00:07:13] Bob: But those smaller asks are just the beginning of the crime. Soon, Precious starts to tell a much bigger story to Alan.
[00:07:21] Mike: One thing that happened, which I’ve come to realize this might be a common thing for scammers from Ghana, is that the uh the women, in this case, Precious, eventually will let the victim know that, "I am actually an African princess, I’ve actually inherited millions of dollars’ worth of gold, it’s back overseas in Ghana, and here’s my lawyer," you know. In, in this case Precious had a lawyer named Eric, and other, other scammers will introduce other like a, they’ll, they’ll almost always introduce a second player, um, like a second figure. And then the lawyer will come in, in this case, Eric, with a very formal sounding, uh you know, email signature block and very formal sounding, uh, language and write, you know, big, long paragraphs, with very lawyerly sounding text to say, "I understand, Alan, that you’re here to help Precious. Uh, that’s a great thing that you’re doing. And in order to have her, you know, receive her inheritance of millions of dollars which will help her and her family, you need to start paying," you know, this and that for legal documents, for shipping fees, et cetera, et cetera.
[00:08:40] Bob: So far, this looks like a crime that FBI agents unfortunately see pretty often, but as Mike keeps reading, he confirms one of his chief suspicions. That trip to Dubai and Ghana, that means the crime went a whole lot farther.
[00:08:55] Mike: Eventually, I think the reason to get Alan on a plane was so that he could meet the supposed lawyer, Eric, in Dubai so that they could sign some legal documents towards the uh, the release of the gold.
[00:09:08] Bob: And what did he actually sign when he got to Dubai?
[00:09:11] Mike: It was just, you know, something that you could drum up on Microsoft Word in 10 minutes.
[00:09:16] Bob: So this, this was still all just a, a movie scene that they were playing out for him. Um, well did you see the part of the discussion where he said, yes, I’ll, I’ll fly, I’ll get on an airplane? I mean, that must be amazing to see in black and white.
[00:09:30] Mike: Yep, we saw that. I think it must have been several months into their, the scam where he actually got onto the plane, if I recall correctly. But uh yep, they met in Dubai. That was actually one of the reasons why I decided that we could probably take on this case, because he had actually gone overseas, and he actually met these people in person, at least Alan could pick them out from a lineup, for example.
[00:09:55] Bob: He could pick Precious and Eric out of a lineup, if ever there were a way to get them into a lineup. But maybe even more important, there's pictures.
[00:10:06] Mike: Yeah, so they meet in Dubai. It's Eric and Precious. It’s uh, an African man and a Caucasian woman claiming to be Eric and Precious, and they have Alan pay for the hotel, they have Alan pay for the meals, everything. In fact, I think there’s this picture of Alan with uh, Eric and Precious in like, it looks like a Chili’s or something in the Dubai airport. It was one of the first times that we actually saw the scammers for real when, uh Alan shared that picture with us.
[00:10:34] Bob: Okay, yeah. Now before we go on, you have a picture of them at, of the three of them at a, at a Chili’s in Dubai?
[00:10:40] Mike: I, I don’t know what restaurant it is, but it looked like, you know, uh there’s, there’s a few more pictures of them at the uh, the Dubai airport, so you know, it’s just pretty good uh proof that corroborates the story.
[00:10:53] Bob: That’s, I’m almost, I’m kind of amazed that they were brazen enough to pose for a picture like that.
[00:10:58] Mike: You know, it’s um, sometimes I think about that, too. So I think from the perspective of a scammer, it’s really a risk/reward calculation they have to make because uh, when you’re trying to scam these folks, if you, you know, obviously, you know, it’s a romance scam, so your victim wants to meet you because you guys are supposed to be in love. So if you never meet with the victim, obviously they will start to get suspicious after a while. And there’s only so much that you can keep the victim on the hook for, there’s only so, so much money you can squeeze out of them. However, if you take the risk and you actually meet with the victim, and you have the uh, I guess the props to show that this is actually a true story, then you’ve got the victim hooked for even more, right. Now he knows it’s real.
[00:11:43] Bob: Mike says the three of them looked pretty jolly in the photos, like they're on vacation together.
[00:11:48] Mike: Eric and Alan, just kind of posing, big smiles somewhere, it must have been somewhere in Dubai, if I recall correctly. And then, when we saw pictures of Precious, she was indeed a Caucasian young woman. She must, she must have been in her mid--, she looked like she was in her mid-20s. Eric looked like he was a bit older, probably in his 40s, but you know, the pictures that Precious had been sending to Alan via Skype were, you know, pictures of just gorgeous women that you find on the internet, right, and it was pretty clear that the Precious in real life was not the same.
[00:12:26] Bob: Eventually, the group gets down to business. But they don't stay in Dubai very long.
[00:12:31] Mike: After signing these documents for the uh, supposed gold, Eric kind of suddenly proposes to Alan, "Hey why don’t I take you to Ghana so that you could actually see the gold for yourself, and so that you can actually see all of Precious’s inheritance, so that you know it’s real." And then um, the real reason that Eric’s doing this is because he wants to get Alan on some more scams that he has waiting for him back in Ghana. From there, Precious actually goes back to her home country; we found out later that was Ukraine. Eric, I think he just takes Alan’s credit cards, and he just buys tickets for them to go from Dubai to Ghana.
[00:13:08] Bob: And when they get to Ghana, Eric puts on quite a show for Alan.
[00:13:12] Mike: Pretty shortly after they landed, Eric takes Alan to what sounds like some sort of compound or some sort of building that he has, and inside is what Alan described as some sort of safety deposit box. Unfortunately, there was no pictures uh really from, that describe this, so I don’t, we don’t really have a good visual on it, but it looked pretty official. Uh, Alan, you know, Alan described that there was like a bank guard there, and there were some other folks there, and so, you know, Eric does the whole "bring forth the gold" kind of thing. Alan describes um, the guards bringing over I guess a chest of, you know, gold bars, and uh Alan picked one up, and, and he said it sure felt like they were pretty heavy, so it must be gold.
[00:14:05] Bob: Wow, and but to Alan's estimation, it was maybe millions of dollars’ worth of gold?
[00:14:10] Mike: Yeah, that's what Eric was claiming the whole time. That was part of the story, so...
[00:14:14] Bob: Of course, Eric has another reason to bring Alan to Ghana. He wants to introduce Alan to another criminal with another elaborate story.
[00:14:23] Mike: Eric kind of uses this opportunity to, to introduce a, another scam. It's another scam that we’ve heard of before, it’s sometimes you call it like, uh I’ve heard it referred to as like a kind of a washing the money scam, or the black money scam. There’s different variations of it, but really what it amounts to is a magic trick that is really impressive in the moment and really uh hooks your victim. And what Eric does is he says, okay, great, now you’ve seen Precious’s gold. I’d like to introduce you to another person. This person here is Daniel. Daniel’s about 18 years old. You know, he’s also some sort of African nobility. And Daniel’s there, and he’s smiling and he’s, you know, playing the part of a, a poor 18-year-old kid, and Eric’s just trying to help him out too, just the way like he’s trying to help out Precious. And Daniel has inherited a large quantity of, of sheets, uh, you know, just like you've seen those sheets that are uncut at the Treasury Department. But these sheets are worthless unless you start cutting them, and once you cut them all, then they’ll be worth millions, but uh, the way to cut them is, you can’t just use scissors. You need a chemical that only, Frank, the other character, he uses introduces guy, Frank. Frank was kind enough to bring it, so let me show you how it works. Puts the chemicals in a bowl, pours water over it, mixes it all up, and then he dips one of these sheets into the bowl, and you know, before Alan's eyes, the sheets separate into the separate individual $100 bills. So, just like that, we made 400 bucks. And so Eric says, you know, it's as simple as that, so if we want to start getting Daniel's uh money, then we need to start paying money for the rest of the chemicals from Frank.
[00:16:10] Bob: Okay, wow. So they, that, that convinces him and not just to, um, send some money for the gold, but he's now, he's now in on the uh, he's now in on the dollar bill making scam too, right?
[00:16:23] Mike: Yeah, and Daniel really plays the part as well. Daniel starts crying and becomes emotional, uh when Alan, he really is like a, a kindhearted, you know, man. And Alan says, you know, I agree, yep, I'll take care of you, Daniel. Don't worry about it. And, you know, Daniel starts crying, starts calling Alan his grandpa, "I'm so lucky to have a grandpa who will take care of me." From then on, Daniel starts keeping in contact with Alan once Alan goes back to the States.
[00:16:52] Bob: So Alan flies home and keeps fielding requests from Precious and Eric and Daniel. Meeting Precious, seeing the gold bars, it has Alan more convinced than ever that he's doing something to help her get the inheritance she's entitled to. And that opens the door for more and more transactions.
[00:17:11] Mike: Yeah, I mean you can see, when we read the emails and the Skype messages in their entirety, you could see how, you know one of them, whether it's Daniel or Eric or Precious would say, "Hey, I need X amount of money for my sick mother," or for some sort of legal fee with Precious's gold or because Daniel got in trouble or something like that. And you can see how the victim, in this case, Alan, would say, well I don't have it now, but let me see what I can do. And it would just, and they would just be relentless. They would just keep on hounding him for, "Hey, you need to send this money," you know, and they would sometimes impose a sense of urgency, like "Hey, the chemicals are going to expire soon. You need to pay this now. Uh, there's only a week left, it's going to expire," you know, "If they expires, then that's it. There's no hope for Daniel." So things like that, of that nature.
[00:17:56] Bob: There are moments when Alan begins to push them, but the criminals always seem to have an answer.
[00:18:02] Mike: Oh sure. Yeah, many times, Alan would say, "Well I thought this was the last step. You told me the gold's coming after this." And Eric would say, "Oh, sorry, just one more fee." "Oh, the gold got held up in customs in the UK," for example. And then Eric would send some sort of a fake UK customs letter saying that your gold got held up, and you need to pay X amount of money to this bank account. Alan would just say, "Okay, well I'll do that, but the gold's coming, right?" And Eric would say, ":Oh yeah, sure, absolutely, absolutely it's coming. Just, just, we've just got to get over this hurdle."
[00:18:33] Bob: Right about then, that's when Agent Mike comes into Alan's life, right in the middle of the scam. By now, Alan has sent about $600,000 to Precious and Eric and Daniel, so sitting in Alan's living room that day, listening to the story, reading all these text messages, Agent Mike decides he's going to pursue the criminals. After all, he has pictures. What he doesn't have is jurisdiction. He can't fly to Ghana and arrest anyone. So he needs another idea. Maybe, just maybe, there's a way to convince the criminals to come to him. In order to do that, this young FBI agent starts to think up a scam of his own. What is it? Will it work? That's next week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:19:33] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; and, of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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