18
Sep 19

Before He Spammed You, this Sly Prince Stalked Your Mailbox

A reader forwarded what he briefly imagined might be a bold, if potentially costly, innovation on the old Nigerian prince scam that asks for help squirreling away millions in unclaimed fortune: It was sent via the U.S. Postal Service, with a postmarked stamp and everything.

In truth these old fashioned “advance fee” or “419” scams predate email and have circulated via postal mail in various forms and countries over the years.

The recent one pictured below asks for help in laundering some $11.6 million from an important dead person that anyway has access to a secret stash of cash. Any suckers who bite are strung along for weeks while imaginary extortionists or crooked employees at these bureaucratic institutions demand licenses, bribes or other payments before disbursing any funds. Those funds never arrive, no matter how much money the sucker gives up.

This type of “advance fee” or “419” scam letter is common in spam, probably less so via USPS.

It’s easy to laugh at this letter, because it’s sometimes funny when scammers try so hard. But then again, maybe the joke’s on us because sending these scams via USPS makes them even more appealing to the people most vulnerable: Older individuals with access to cash but maybe not all their marbles. 

Sure, the lure costs $.55 up front. But a handful of successful responses to thousands of mailers could net fortunes for these guys phishing it old school.

The losses from these types of scams are sometimes hard to track because so many go unreported. But they are often perpetrated by the same people involved in romance scams online and in so-called ‘business email compromise” or BEC fraud, wherein the scammers try to spoof the boss at a major company in a bid to get wire payment for an “urgent” (read: fraudulent) invoice.

These scam letters are sometimes called 419 scams in reference to the penal code for dealing with such crimes in Nigeria, a perennial source of 419 letter schemes. A recent bust of a Nigerian gang targeted by the FBI gives some perspective on the money-making abilities of a $10 million ring that was running these scams all day long.

Reportedly, in the first seven months of 2019 alone the FBI received nearly 14,000 complaints reporting BEC scams with a total loss of around $1.1 billion—a figure that nearly matches losses reported for all of 2018.

68 comments

  1. You won! Call now, don’t delay, operators are standing by!

  2. I would imagine USPIS can trace that metered mail postmark to try to find out who is putting these in the mail.

    • Maybe they ‘somehow’ made a little fortune, which could only get ‘unlocked’ by buying USPS-stamps …
      I also remember – in the 90’s – getting such ‘offers’ by FAX.

  3. What about the scams where you receive a check for, say, $2000 in the mail?

    • There are a number of scams involving sending you a check. Most will ask for a refund or rebate that is a fraction of the face amount. You send them a check for the rebate and a week or so later the original check bounces.

    • I replied to a variation of this scam once because it involved money orders rather than checks and I’d never seen that variation before, so I was curious. Turns out they were FAKE money orders, simply printed on an inkjet printer. So, the primary crime was counterfeiting and the secondary crime was recruiting unwitting accomplices. That’s a crime, right? (What about for the unwitting accomplice?)

  4. The Sunshine State

    It’s always sunny here the FLA , I can’t wait for my 419 scam in the mail, it will certainly ” brighten” up my day

  5. Looks like it cost $0.40, not $0.55.

    • Ah… you noticed. The 15-cent difference in what the scammers paid for First-Class and what you and I pay is explained by “PRSRT” on the stamp (printed ahead of “FIRST-CLASS MAIL”). The senders got a 15-cent discount on *each*piece* of a (presumably) large bundle of letters because they were pre-sorted by ZIP code by the sender.

      Now, why would this “confidential” and presumably one-time letter be in a pre-sorted bundle?

  6. I googled “what is yandex”and got back
    yandex.ru as one of my choices. I stopped right there!
    Thanks Brian for these amazing scam stories… good to know what to look out for.
    My thought would be to tell the scammer to take all the fees out of the 11.6 mill and send me the rest. ;-D

  7. I get them on my fax quite often also. Usually addressed to me by name, last was someone with my name that was deceased with $$$ of money to be collected. LOL

  8. This must be a slow day for security news. But, seriously, who would fall for these letters? (And if your elderly can’t tell them apart from actual bills, why aren’t you taking over their legal affairs in that case.)

    PS. By the way, yandex.com is not from Nigeria. It’s Russia.

    • As a person that has some old people in his family, I can tell you that sometimes they outlive their kin, sometimes they alienate anyone that would care for them, and sometimes they sneak past everyone by having a private checking account nobody knows about.

      There’s a pretty hefty timeshare industry in the US which is predicated on the fact that old people often lose their marbles.

    • Many people are gullible. I have family members who are not old, but I have had to personally stop them from paying the fee on letters/emails like this.

  9. I remember receiving these 30 years ago. I had several that were handwritten and hand addressed. And were actually mailed from Nigeria. Except for one that was from the widow a Saudi prince and was mailed from Saudi Arabia.

  10. Throw a link to site you used to gather latest stats for BEC fraud losses if possible Krebs?

  11. I had one of these, sorta, with a twist. Gal contacted me when I was on Skype, nice looking Caucasian woman about 28. Just chatted a lot with her. She never asked for anything but I sure she would have one day. Noticed a lot of African decor in the room. Then one time in a mirror I could see a very, very evil looking African man watching her as she spoke to me. I asked who the man was. And the twist part is, she became very very afraid, and after a few minutes she was gone never to be heard from again. Not sure why she was so terrified that I’d seen the man in the mirror, but I think she was afraid of the man. The image of that scared me, and those faces are burned in my mind, the stuff of nightmares. Some of these scammers are very dangerous and very evil.

    • That was her handler, basically her pimp, making sure she stayed on script and would move the scam along to the desired outcome. You’re never supposed to see them and they typically nuke the entire scam if you get them on camera because if you were recording the encounter you would then have a face for authorities to go after. The girl you spoke with is likely fine, just running scams on other people now.

      There are very evil people running most of the scams but they very rarely are stupid enough to kill or even seriously injure their golden geese, at least in a way that would show on camera. Especially immediately after they were potentially recorded as being in the room with the person.

  12. Look at the meter stamp — it’s a mere 40c because they got the presort rate, available if you send a lot of mail and batch it by recipient’s zip code. I wonder how many of these they sent. It has to be at least 500 letters per mailing, 5000 letters per year.
    You do have to get a permit in advance so it’s not like it’s hard to track down who sent this.

  13. The person who wrote this document is very smart (not in a good way, of course.) The paragraph that begins with the statement “It requires all confidentiality at this stage” might convince an elderly person not to confide in a grown child or internet savvy grandchild, who would likely warn them away from getting involved in the scam.

    The writer of this document also avoided many of the “a-ha!” traps that usually reveal the fact that this is a scam. Such as, once in a while I will click on an email in my spam inbox, just out of curiosity. These types of emails are usually suspect because of the frequent use of the word “dear” or “my dear” because English-speaking Westerners don’t usually converse this way in a formal email, and there are often many obvious spelling errors that tell me that the writer’s first language isn’t English. So in my opinion, this person was a very talented writer and perhaps could find something more positive to do with their talents in this life.

    • It literally says “from your country” that should be enough of a giveaway….

      • How is “from your country” a giveaway? It’s being sent from a Brit to someone in the US, supposedly about a US ex-pat in who lived and died in Britain. “From your country” seems completely appropriate.

        • It is generic and vague, so scammers can send the same thing to multiple people in multiple countries without having to change as many details.

        • Well, the sender is supposedly in London, yet the return address is from an address in Illinois. That’s certainly a BIG TIP-OFF!

      • More the use of “write you” and a Yandex email while claiming to be from the UK – but it’s easy to pick up on such things when you already know it’s a scam.

        To confuse things further, there actually are companies which go through the public lists of unclaimed, intestate estates and try to track down next of kin for a percentage fee. Makes you wonder why these scammers pretend to be law-breaking bank employees instead of legitimate heir hunters.

  14. Mail fraud is a serious crime. They should have stayed with email fraud.

  15. I am a SCB account holder – the UK does not have domestic accounts

  16. where's my $11million?!???

    these are form letters. got the same letter with pretty much the same text. but was from some address in canada.

    still waiting to get my $11 million….

    • How much did they get you for? more than a lottery ticket? (pretty much the same thing)

      • At least state lotteries fund some public function.

        • Actually they don’t. It’s just a shell game. Here’s the con:
          State funds, say $10mill/year, out of general revenue. They start a lottery. That brings in $10mill/year for education. The legislature then cuts the $10mill from general revenue. Net result: Yes, the lottery money is going to education, but it is REPLACING current money, not adding to it.

  17. About 15 years ago I received a similar letter (to my then PO box) advising that I was the beneficiary of a deceased estate. In order to receive a particular amount, all I had to do was forward a small sum to cover admin costs and postage – say, $100.00. I replied asking that the $100.00 be deducted from the larger amount and the balance sent to me ASAP. No response.

  18. No doubt they also first stole access to somebody’s metered mail account.

  19. My parents received a packet with only a check, which they validated at a bank as being real, but it is sent from a company that is different from the mailing address and no instructions. Also, no known relation between my parents and the company, really bizarre. They refrained from cashing it, as it makes no sense.

    • Your parents will soon receive a note saying that the check was sent in error. It will be assumed the check was deposited. There will be a demand to return the funds in another form, such Western Union.

      Don’t waste postage sending the check back. The return address is fake.

    • I hope you are aware the check will bounce. A “real” check is not always a funded check.

      • Actually, if cashed it will clear. That’s part of the scam.
        And most people will send part of it back to the scammers.

        Then maybe a week after it clears, it will be uncleared or reversed when original account holder finds the bad withdrawal and reports it. And then your parents will be on the hook for the whole amount, including the parts they kept and spent and the parts they sent to scammers.

        It’s whack, but when checks clear sometimes it’s a lie and not actually cleared.

        • What is to stop someone from going to the bank that it is drawn off of and requesting it be cashed? I assume at that point the check could not be cashed due to insufficient funds – but at least it doesn’t touch your bank account at all.

  20. My mother received one of these addressed from somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area (we live in New England). She has a very uncommon last name and a handful of distant relatives in Ontario with the same last name (with the “deceased” of course having the same last name), so we thought it was legitimate…for about a second. Once we actually read it, it was clearly a scam. Still, I wonder if this was just a coincidence or something more intricate.

  21. Looks like zip is 60148 which comes back to this:

    https://www.unitedstateszipcodes.org/60148/

    It is also metered mail, which can be traced back.

    Should be reported to USPS

  22. “Old folks with access to cash but maybe not all their marbles” . #Ageism_much? I’ve come to expect slightly more circumspect commentary from you Brian

    • Oh, it is not. He didn’t say all old people are like that, he said that is the ideal target (and indeed, it is).

    • While the statement is slang it is quite appropriate in this context. Criminals of all stripes target the elderly, sometimes because of their cognitive decline. During the Savings & Loan debacle the perpetrators specifically went after elderly people because they were easier to confuse and would have a hard time remembering details. And the perps were rich US citizens.

    • +1

      Old people are not more likely to go nuts or lose their intellectual capacity than younger people. To joke about it is illogical.

      Senior scams work because the physical process of aging requires that seniors depend on others for assistance. Aging can also bring grief and loss and isolation for the ones who outlive friends and loved ones, especially in North America where multiple generations don’t usually live together. These factors make seniors more willing to trust others, even to their detriment.

      And because many are sitting on retirement funds, they are targeted for scams.

      • Over 65. No, over 70. Whoops! Where was I?

        As an older adult, I can attest to the fact that confusion comes on gradually. Everything from losing one’s keys more often, to losing track of which leg of a frequent trip I am on, to forgetting skills I haven’t used in, oh, decades.

        A few oldsters never have this loss. Many do.

        And other losses: They live alone. Their friends are dying or gone. One day blends into the next. They hate to be reminded that they are old. The future might well include a nursing home and a complete upending of all one’s routines and choices. Even to visit the fridge and pick out an apple.

        Is it ageism when we’re talking about a class of people rather than judging a single person based on the appearance of age? I don’t think so.

      • “Old people are not more likely to … lose their intellectual capacity than younger people.”

        Thousands of years of history, scientific studies, and personal experience would disagree with you. Saying older people are more targeted by criminals because they’re more susceptible is not “ageism”, it’s scientific fact. Don’t worry, you’ll get to that point too someday.

    • What kind of sensitive little bitch do you have to be to get offended by this? Seriously, how do you even make it through the day?

  23. Date in the American format (M-D-Y), but claiming to be from a UK bank. They would use D-M-Y.

  24. Thank you so much for sharing the valuable post.

  25. These scams ensnare greedy people who should know that this action of claiming someone’s funds is not legit. Yes, most are unreported because who do you report if someone buys your illicit merchandise with a counterfeit?

  26. I had one of these, hand written and airmailed from Nigeria back in 1993. I had never heard of the scam before that. Everything comes full circle.

  27. Scammers use principles that are inherent in normal and healthy human behavior to fool people. The people who are fooled are not necessarily more gullible than average. They were caught off-guard. The BBC show The Real Hustle shows some fascinating footage of people falling for scams and is quite instructional.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3xjjy5GdhY

    And if you think you are going to notice everything going on around you all the time then the video on YouTube The Monkey Business Illusion is worth viewing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY

    We are all vulnerable to scammers because they use the mechanisms that enable us to navigate a complex world and trust others enough to create a civil society in ways that subvert their purpose.

    • This exactly. These crimes go unreported because the victims are often too embarrassed to admit they were fooled. But these are confidence tricks, designed to prey on the confidence of ordinary people.

      Calling them “suckers” and people who have lost their marbles simply perpetuates the concept that these victims are of lower intelligence. This kind of stigma is the reason why these crimes continue to go unreported and thus don’t get the resources devoted to them to be policed more effectively.

  28. All scammers should be lynched but my favorite scam has to be the Perfect Prediction Scam:
    http://skepdic.com/perfectprediction.html

  29. I watched an episode of Intervention where a guy could not stop responding to these schemes and bankrupted himself, his family was like WTF Dad?

  30. Thieves are getting more desperate by the day. This is true in my time as a locksmith – seeing the efforts people go to in order to break into homes.

    Although not a scam or comparable to Nigerians scammers – the increase of attempts still holds true.