Advance Fee Fraud, or AFF, is an age-old scam that goes back at least to the 16th century.
Back in the 1500s, the Spanish Prisoner version involved a wealthy relative who needed your help to bribe his way clear of some trumped-up charges for which he was rotting in jail.
Naturally, he’d be so grateful to get out that he’d repay you many times over, and perhaps even offer you his daughter’s hand in marriage, too.
But there was no wealthy relative, no trumped-up charges, and (perhaps rather obviously, since there was no relative to have fathered her) no daughter.
Those scams needed an ongoing exchange of letters, but fast forward to the 1970s and 1980s, and the fax machine joined the equation.
Now email, instant messaging and mobile telephones are the enabling factors in AFF.
There’s not much need for imaginary relatives with unmarried daughters any more, because the crooks can build in the romantic angle simply by scouring on-line dating sites.
There’s nothing wrong with internet dating, of course, but it does mean that you’ve pre-announced your willingness to begin engaging in dialogue with strangers online.
The risk seems low, because you’re anonymous until you choose to reveal where you live and who you really are; but that advantage of anonymity applies to the crooks at the other end.
The “A” in AFF
The name AFF should be self-explanatory: you keep getting squeezed for fees, small amounts at first, and then more and more as your emotional and financial commitment deepens.
But all those fees are payable in advance, thus AFF.
A modern day Spanish Prisoner romance might unfold differently, but the idea is the same: to draw you in emotionally, to win your trust, and to keep hitting you with those advance fees.
Perhaps your new boyfriend or girlfriend will want to visit you, now that you trust each other?
Perhaps he or she will be a bit short of funds for the air ticket, which you might like to help with?
And the visa charges?
And so it goes, for as long as the crook can keep you on the hook.
There’s still big money in AFF, but also some justice, as four men in the UK found recently.
They ran the fake inheritance version of the scam, where you are tricked into thinking you are helping your inamorato with some funds to shake loose a substantial inheritance tied up in a corrupt and tardy legal system.
By preying on vulnerable women looking for love online, these scammers allegedly netted nearly quarter of a million pounds (£220,000, or about $350,000) before the law caught up with them for real.
The ringleader pulled an eight-year sentence, with his henchmen getting from 10 months to three-and-a-half years inside for their part in fraud and money laundering.
What to do?
Even on Naked Security, we see commenters offering the opinion that the victims don’t deserve much pity: they should have realised because the scam was “obvious”.
Somehow, the callous and carefully-paced lies sold by the greedy crooks become irrelevant, because “the victim should have known.”
But anyone who has ever bought anything at a shop and later regretted it, or found it cheaper elsewhere, or realised it wasn’t quite the bargain they thought – and, admit it, that includes you – has made a cost-benefit miscalculation in their lifetime.
So don’t blame the victim, and if you think you have vulnerable friends or family, please urge them to read articles like this.
If you’re worried they won’t listen to you, perhaps they might listen to a third party.
Here are two resources that should help:
- The Aussie government’s Scamwatch advice from the Australian 2014 National Consumer Fraud Week.
- The UK’s Safe Online Dating advice, published as part of Get Safe Online Week, which starts today.
If it sounds to good to be true, IT IS.