Chicago When Betsy Shyrock met “Mark Donovan” online, it was love at first type. She was a single mom who hadn’t been in the dating game for 17 years. He was an international soccer scout from Ireland who lived in Virginia.
For two months, Shyrock chatted with Donovan from her Georgia home, trading love notes and discussing his plans to come see her. But trouble came instead.
“He said he had spent all his money on the players and that he needed money for plane tickets to get back,” Shyrock said.
Donovan had been traveling in Nigeria.
“I sent $500 here, $200 there. He sent me a copy of a $400,000 check that he was going to bring home to me and reimburse me with,” Shyrock said. “He was going to marry me and take care of me.”
Shyrock, 52, was in the hole $10,000 before she realized that she had fallen victim to a variation of the classic Nigerian advance fee scam.
Gone are the days when Nigerians duped victims solely with the tale of an orphaned prince’s quest to reclaim his inheritance. The scheme has morphed into a family of scams that now include romance cons like the one Shyrock fell for, along with rental scams and even puppy sale scams.
These evolving schemes highlight the adaptability of the West African scammers as they try to stay a step ahead of law enforcement and find new ways to reel in victims.
In the rental scam, Nigerians swipe pictures from legitimate online home sale ads and create fake ads offering the property for rent. When a potential renter makes contact with the scammer, he or she is told that the landlord had to leave abruptly to do missionary work in Africa and that the renter should fill out an application and wire the landlord the first and last months’ rent.
The would-be renter is then told that keys will be sent if he or she qualifies as a renter but, of course, the keys never come.
Though Nigerian scams are prolific in the U.S., their reach is global. The “puppy scam” — in which pet lovers are duped into paying for animals that don’t exist by being told that the animals would be killed if they are not purchased — popped up recently.
The Nigerian advance fee scam — also known as 419 fraud after the fraud section of the Nigerian Criminal Code — began as a snail-mail scam in the early 1980s, law-enforcement officials said. With the advent of the Internet, the scheme exploded in the ’90s, with e-mail blitzes reaching the far corners of the globe.
As more people get hip to their techniques, the scammers adapt, law-enforcement officials said, to target untapped audiences and potential profit. Tom Brady, inspector in charge for the Chicago division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said the scams are the same. They’re just “packaged differently.”
“Nigerian scammers are very skilled at changing their methods in order to avoid detection. They are ‘chameleon-like’ in their approach,” Brady said in an e-mail.
Nigeria long has been the epicenter of these advance fee scams, and many have been traced to IP addresses originating in the country, law enforcement officials said. Whether they’re sent by organized networks or freelance crooks operating out of Internet cafes, they cast wide nets and rake in millions.
But Nigerians have not cornered this lucrative market. Advance fee crimes are perpetrated by scammers around the world, including in Canada and the Netherlands.
Worldwide losses attributed to advance fees scams of all types from all countries topped $4.3 billion in 2007 — the last good estimate available from the U.S. But many cases go unreported and it’s tough to know how much of that total can be attributed to Nigerian scammers because, though the scam may originate in Nigeria, it may include accomplices from other countries, law enforcement officials said.