Anatomy of a scam

Advance fee fraudsters (AFFsters) trick well-meaning people out of millions of dollars a year. Basic AFF works exactly as the name suggests. “Hello, victim! Please send me money up front! Your rewards come later.” Except, of course, they don’t.

More sophisticated AFF variants give you some reason to think you can trust the fraudster before you send your money. A common flavour of this is the so-called overpayment scam. The fraudster sends you a cheque for more than the correct amount. Rather than cancelling and reissuing the cheque – since the scammer trusts you – you are asked to bank the cheque and simply to refund the difference. Except, of course, the cheque is fraudulent and ends up dishonoured. You are left out of pocket.

Here is a recent real-world example of just such a scam in action. The scammer is pretending to be a German lady named Mary, replying to a “room to let” advert in the USA. She’s bankrolled by the German government, so there should be no risk in taking her on as a tenant.

(Mary tells at least one glaring lie in her email, since she claims fluency in English, something she clearly lacks.)

The email exchange continues for a few days. Does Mary mind sharing with a bunch of blokes? Of course not! Sharing a bathroom with a guy? No! Mary is hard working, neat, and doesn’t smoke or drink herself, though she doesn’t mind if the people around her do. Mary doesn’t have a boyfriend, since she’s been really busy lately. Mary will pay her rent up front, no problems!

Then, when the potential victim (or mugu, as he’s known in Nigeria) is on the hook, comes the advance fee sting. Mary’s employer will only issue one cheque to cover both rent and travel. She’s so keen to secure the lease that she’s sending the whole cheque to the mugu. He should bank all the money, and – guess what – refund the difference. Oh, and by the way, here’s a picture of Mary. Guess what? She really is a European-looking young lady.

I’m telling you this story because the potential victim in this case actually jumped through hoops to keep his correspondence with Mary alive. Can you believe it, but her email got caught up in his spam filter! He had to go digging around to get it, which delayed his replies, for which he apologised profusely to Mary.

Oi! Guys and girls out there! Make sure brain is in gear before engaging mouse!

And make sure cheque has cleared before remitting money irretrievably via a wire-transfer service.

PS: Mary’s emails came from the IP number Guess where that is?