Searching for suckers

January 27, 2003

IN HIS GLORY days in the 1920s and 1930s, Oscar Hartzell and his confederates combed through the Midwest, conning tens of thousands of gullible people into believing they could share in the supposedly rediscovered fortune of Sir Francis Drake. All that was needed was just some good-faith money up front.

It was all hooey, of course, and only enriched Mr. Hartzell, who died in jail in 1943. His method thrives, however. But these days it's practiced worldwide on the Internet and with such personages as Danladi Mahmud, Abolo Emmanuel and Mrs. M. Sese Seko, who have stories to tell to anyone greedy enough to listen.

Apparently indiscriminately, they send floods of e-mails, claiming to have millions of dollars to give away. All they need in return is your bank name and address, your account number, the name of your beneficiary, your company name and address and your company's letterhead.

"This transaction is 100 percent risk-free," asserts Abolo Emmanuel, who identifies himself as the director of auditing for the nonexistent First Bank PLC of Africa. He claims to have come across an unclaimed $10.5 million bank account belonging to a person who died in a plane crash. All Mr. Emmanuel needs to make you a beneficiary is to get your bank information.

Another person seeking your "confidential" cooperation professes to be the widow of Congo's kleptocratic dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.

It's hard to believe that anyone would fall for these kinds of obvious scams. Yet the National Fraud Information Center says those are the fastest-growing fraud in the United States.

Last year alone, more than 2,400 Americans reported having been defrauded through e-mail propositions. If their bank accounts were not raided, they were asked to advance escalating amounts of money toward bribes and other costs that were presumably needed. The promised jackpot, of course, never materialized.

Although these money scams are spreading like wildfire, they pale in comparison with online auction irregularities, by far the most common form of Internet fraud. Despite some congressional interest in stopping misuses, there is little cyber policing and con artists operate with abandon. In the absence of legislation, every Internet user should be alert.

Don't be a sucker. If you get questionable e-mail, don't even think of responding. Treat it as if it contained a virus and kill it. You may forgo a promised windfall, if one ever existed, but at least you won't lose anything.

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