And now for the latest fraud from Nigeria - puppies.
The Council of Better Business Bureaus and American Kennel Club issued a warning yesterday about fraudulent Web sites, MySpace postings and print ads asking people to help save puppies who are in desperate straits.
The sites and ads usually show adorable bulldog puppies that have become stuck somehow in Nigeria or other countries and are offered free to new owners.
A variation of the scheme is to offer the purebred English bulldogs - a particularly expensive breed - at vastly discounted prices.
People who responded to the ads eventually were asked to send hundreds of dollars to cover expenses such as shipping, customs, taxes and inoculations on an ever escalating scale.
Some reported paying fees totaling more than $1,500.
"It's like the Nigerian advance fee scams we've been seeing for years, except with the face of a puppy," said Steve Cox, a council vice president.
No matter how much was paid, no puppies arrived. Even the pictures showing sad-eyed puppies probably were fraudulent, mostly lifted from legitimate sites of unwitting dog owners.
Which leads to the only good news about the situation.
`No real puppies'
"When people hear about these scams involving pups they get so upset for the poor dogs," said Alison Preszler, spokeswoman for the council.
"But at least I can say to them, `There are no real puppies involved. It's all a fake.'"
The problem is real and growing. In the past couple of months local bureaus across the country increasingly have been getting complaints, Cox said.
In April, a Manhattan woman was charged with grand larceny for collecting fees for English bulldog puppies online and then not delivering them. She allegedly told investigators she shared the proceeds with a Nigerian accomplice.
There are several variations on the scheme.
The ad that caught the attention of Tracy Braswell of Pittsburgh was in the "free" section of a local, online classified ads site. It told of a puppy that would bring "much love and joy" to a home, and it showed four pictures.
"How could you not fall in love/" Braswell asked.
She wrote to the e-mail address and received a long reply. The puppy was in excellent health, playful, wonderful with children and a registered purebred, she was told.
But the woman who placed the ad recently had moved from the United States to Cameroon, adjacent to Nigeria, and the dog was suffering because of the climate. "I love her so much," the woman wrote, that she was willing to give her away.
For a $160 shipping fee.
Daisy Okas, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club that registers purebred dogs, said the ad and e-mail raised several red flags. "It's very unusual that someone would be giving away a purebred puppy," Okas said. "Maybe an older dog. But puppies are coveted."
English bulldog puppies commonly sell for $1,200 to $3,000.
The shipping fee probably would have been only the starting point. The way this scheme works is that once a fee is paid, another is quickly requested. And because the person vying for the dog already has money invested, often it's paid.
Braswell, 34, didn't get that far. She got suspicious after asking for details about the puppy's health.
The woman in Cameroon wrote back that the dog came with a "one year shipping guarantee," that would provide a refund if there were health problems. Or Braswell could choose a puppy "from the next litter."
That's when Braswell cut off communication. "What was she doing breeding puppies if the climate was not good for this one?" she asked.
Kim McDonald of Gallipolis, Ohio, wanted an English bulldog for her son. Together they looked over online ads, finally narrowing their choices to three. McDonald, 41, e-mailed them. They told him they were at a conference in Nigeria, said McDonald.
$350 for Emma
She and her son chose a puppy named Emma being offered free. McDonald sent $350 to cover all costs, including shipping. They were told that flight information would be forthcoming.
But instead came an e-mail asking for $200 more for customs fees to clear the puppy through London. McDonald had been told the puppy was coming from a breeder in Tennessee. Only the so-called agent was in Nigeria. She called the designated breeder, who told her that operation didn't handle English bulldogs at all.
McDonald e-mailed the agent, asking for her money back. There was no reply.
She was dismayed and not just about being tricked.
"We had gotten so excited about this little puppy that was coming," she said. "We were so sad."
So, with her former husband agreeing to split the bill, she went to a legitimate local breeder and got an English bulldog puppy. The cost: $1,600.
David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.