DennisBeaverApril 14, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

“Mr. Beaver, I believe that my father has been the victim of an Internet scam. After Mom died two years ago, Dad has been talking with people in chat rooms all over the world, almost daily. A few months ago, he began getting strange offers,” Stephanie wrote in an e-mail.

“People from a number of African countries e-mailed, asking for help in investing a very large amount of money, as well as to stand-in as the next of kin for a person who died in an airplane crash, and receive several million dollars as a commission. Dad showed me a photo of a trunk filled with money as proof, but anyone can find these photos online. Frankly, I am worried that he is showing signs of mental deterioration, by what he has done in response to these e-mails,” she added.

“What really prompted me to write you is that I fear he has been swindled out of $30,000 by an English company who hired him to help them process payments, in return for keeping a large fee. He was sent foreign cashiers checks that were made payable to him, deposited these checks into his own bank account, deducted a 20 percent fee, and then had his bank immediately wire the difference to England. This went on for several weeks, then he was notified by his bank that all the cashiers’ checks he deposited were fakes!”

“When this happened, the bank removed $30,000 from his accounts. Have you heard of this before? Can we do anything? Can his bank legally do this to him? Thanks for your advice.”
Yes, I knew what Stephanie was talking about, as I also receive these very same e-mail offers and pleas for help from Africa — or rather, from crooks in Africa. The scam — and folks, that’s what it is — is a new version of the decades-old Nigerian 419 advance-fee scam, named after the Nigerian Criminal Code. These are some of the oldest tricks in the book, promising a share of found money, lottery winnings or, as in my reader’s case, a check collection business.

A Fresno detective I spoke with about these scams told me they “appeal to our greed — something for nothing. Only now, it’s much more high-tech, often using the name of God, Allah, you name it, to convince you it’s legit and that they were led to you and you alone.”

“My husband, the late General Doo Doo from Zamuland, died leaving $15 million in a sealed box at the National Bank of Zamuland. Because of having fallen out of favor with the local politicians, I cannot collect it, but you can, by declaring yourself to be Next of Kin, and I will give you $5 million,” was one offer (with slight changes) I received not long ago.

Thousands of these e-mails are sent out by crooks in Western Africa, from former English and French colonies. It is all pure fantasy, designed to appeal to trusting and religious people who will nibble at the bait. Of course, common sense tells you to never reply to these offers, simply mark them as junk and delete them from your in-box.

But I have an evil twin who does not follow this sound advice, and prefers to have a little fun with these cons. Knowing they haven’t got the proverbial pot to pee in — and a phone call to the States is expensive — here is what my evil twin makes me do:

“Yes, I am interested. Please call my cell phone right now and we will talk,” I e-mail back. Within minutes, I am on the phone with someone who immediately talks about trust, how they prayed and I am the answer to their prayers, but more importantly, how I should reveal “our” plans to no one. I let them talk as long as they want, knowing that the longer they talk, the more it will cost.
Then, it is time for me to rain on their parade: I say, “Gee, I am really happy to help, and all you need to do in order to hire my office is to just wire $7,500 and I’m your man in California! Bank wire only, checks are not acceptable.”

Of course, the last thing they expect is for me to ask them for money, as their objective is to get the sucker to send a “processing” fee to them! The caller — who I hope has mortgaged his first-born child for the phone call — usually goes insane at that point, screaming at me, and then hangs up. But his e-mails stop.

Stephanie’s father may have true mental impairment issues, but is more likely a victim of his own greed. Who in the world is going to contact a complete stranger, ask them to “process” cashiers checks, keep 20 percent, and remit the difference? I’ll tell you who: Cons. Crooks. Flimflammers. Normal business is NOT conducted that way.

“Either due to pure greed, impaired mental function or a failure to understand that if it sounds too good to be true, it is, these victims are in good company. The Internet has made it much easier to rip off the trusting,” a Fresno County sheriff’s Investigator told me when I ran these facts by him. “Yes, all of this can and should be reported to law enforcement, but in reality, there is little that we can do,” he admitted.

As to the bank, I spoke with operations officers at three California-based banks, asking them the same question: “Who is responsible for the loss? Was it proper for the bank to have removed those funds from the customer’s account? What about these cashier’s checks? One officer, who asked that I not reveal her name, told me the following:

“There are very real-looking, fake checks floating around in commerce, and it can take weeks to learn they are no good, especially if they are from overseas. Merely because a check is accepted for deposit into an account by your bank does not mean the check is in fact payable. With funds in another account, a bank has the right to pay itself back under these circumstances, if you write checks on uncleared deposits. It happens fairly often.”

The larger issues, in my opinion, concern Dad’s mental health. Stephanie needs to have her father evaluated to see if he is incapable of managing his own affairs. She may have to become his conservator, taking control of his finances.
Stephanie may soon take on the role of “parent” to her own father.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.