10/09/06 — If it sounds too good to be true ... it is

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If it sounds too good to be true ... it is

By Lee Williams
Published in News on October 9, 2006 1:51 PM

Have you received a letter through e-mail, mail or over the fax informing you that you have won the lottery?

Before you quit your job or book a vacation, Wayne County Sheriff's Office officials say there's something you need to know. The letterhead might seem genuine and the accompanying check might seem authentic, but chances are they are fake, Detective Sgt. R. Thomas Flores said.

Thousands of people in the country including several in Wayne County have received similar letters promising cash, but there's only one catch.

"It will say you've won the lottery, but send a tax fee or administration fee," Flores said. "Real lotteries don't do that."

But even if you follow the directions, chances are you will never receive one dime of the promised cash because it's all a hoax, Flores said of the operations called advance fee scams, Nigerian check scams or 419 scams.

"A lot of times there will be a cashier's check or money order that the citizen needs to cash at their bank and then they have to get a money order and send it back," Flores said. "What ends up happening is the check comes back counterfeit and then the bank will be after them for the full amount."

Flores said one resident received a letter stating she won the European lottery. She spoke to a man in France about how to receive her lottery winnings. She mailed a money order and discovered she had been duped.

"The money was sent to China," Flores said. "I traced the money, and it was a Nigerian who picked it up in China using a China passport."

Flores said those who fall prey to the scams and those who initiate the scams share the same motivation: "Greed."

Law enforcement officials want to put an end to Nigerian check scams, but they are helpless to stop the thieves. So, they want to inform the public about how to steer clear of the scam artists.

"It's impossible for local agencies to do anything about it," Flores said. "Their biggest gross domestic product in Nigeria is these scams."

Flores said there are many variations of the 419 or Nigerian check scams that are also being exploited by mobsters.

One scam involves telling residents someone fraudulently used their credit card on Pay Pal. Once residents call the telephone number provided, that's when the game of retrieving the caller's credit card number and three-digit security code begins.

"If they give you a number to call, it won't be Pay Pal," Flores said. "It's the scam artists."

Then there's the dirty money scam.

The solicitor tells the prospective victim they have $10 million, but it's dirty and he needs $10,000 to buy chemicals to wipe it clean, Flores said. The solicitor tells the prospective victim if they send the money, he will give them half of the $10 million, he said.

Some victims try to comply with the scams without telling anyone, Flores said. He said they will run to Wal-Mart, buy a money order and mail it off. But by then it's too late. The thief has won, he said.

Flores said either the victim will never hear from the thief again or the thief will continue to contact them hoping to get more and more money.

Meanwhile, the victim's relationship with their bank is in peril because they will have to repay all the money the bank lost if they deposited the counterfeit check. Flores said sometimes it could take two months or two years before the bank realizes the check is counterfeit.

"It's not automatic," Flores said. "Some of the checks were legitimate at one time."

The issue of Nigerian check scams and the havoc they cause to unsuspecting victims was raised by Nigerian government officials during a House of Representatives International Relations hearing in May.

"Many of us who use the Internet have received solicitations to claim a fortune in funds abandoned in some forgotten bank account. These schemes known as 419 scams after the provision in Nigerian law outlawing them -- are among the issues often cited about Nigeria," according to a transcript of the hearing. "There are numerous accounts of retirees, and even churches, losing thousands of dollars by responding to these fraudulent requests, but those who try to obtain someone else's money are as criminal as those who initiate the scam. The Nigerian government has made a serious effort to address the problem."

Flores said those who receive similar letters should toss them, delete the e-mail or research it on Google by typing in the keyword "419 scams." Responding to one of the solicitations is not worth the headache.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Flores said