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US to find means to stop spread of 419 fraud

Hindustan Times - Alarmed at the number of US citizens falling victim to the Nigerian 419 scam, the US State Department last month issued a warning brochure. The US consulate-general in Lagos can receive 3,000 inquiries from victims a year, says the pamphlet "International Financial Scams".

In its commonest form the 419 fraud, a common part of everyone's spam email and SMS, dupes a victim to send a small amount of money to a fake bank or law firm in return for a promise of marriage, a job or simply more money.

The US is the most lucrative 419 market, with losses in 2006 estimated at $790 million, a 10 per cent increase over the year before, says a report by the Dutch-based firm Ultrascan Advanced Global Investigations. The UK comes second with $530 million.

The State Department brochure reflects standing US policy that the solution is education. Says Michael Sameremetis of the New York office of the US Secret Service, the lead US agency assigned to tackle 419, "The way to stop this is to educate the public as much as possible."

An expert on Ultrascan's 419 Unit, Frank Engelsman, says education and working with internet and cellphone service providers are the two commonest anti-419 tactics of governments. "These are low-cost approaches. The problem cannot be solved with existing law enforcement methods."

Indians are in a particularly sorry state. Ultrascan, though it is a private firm without policing authority, receives pleas for help from dozens of desperate Indians every year.

One man from Kolkata emailed them recently about being defrauded by a "pastor" in Senegal seeking money to help a "girl in a refugee camp" to retrieve "her father's money" from a UK bank. Taken in by carefully fabricated Standard Chartered Bank documents, the victim lost $9,750. "I seek your help," he emailed Ultrascan.

Many people dismiss those who fall for 419 ploys as victims of their own greed. However, many 419 scams today exploit humanitarian instincts. Engelsman says many fraudsters "prey upon people's altruistic impulses". They pepper their conversations with references to god, often targeting religious people.

"The 419 scam industry uses the same human characteristics to sell its lies and myths as do all religions," says US author Brian Wizard, who wrote a novel "Nigerian 419 Scam: Game Over!" based on his personal experiences with these conmen.

Ultrascan advocates a centralised, "victim-friendly" system that has a reporting and researching centre run by an NGO as its primary feature. The centre, in turn, can provide information to the police needed for arrests. Canada's "Phonebusters" programme comes closest to this model.

There is little evidence educational drives or software-based solutions by themselves are effective. Sameremtis admits, "We find it perplexing that so many people continue to hand over money to people they have never met."

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