E-mail scam reaches U faculty, students

Joanna Dornfeld

Every day, students and faculty on campus are deluged with unsolicited e-mails. Most of them are more annoying than harmful.

But one popular scam, which has been draining bank accounts for more than 20 years, hasn’t withered with age.

Dick Suekawa, agent in charge of the Minneapolis U.S. Secret Service field office, said e-mails’ popularity has revived what the agency calls “Nigerian advance fee fraud.”

“They can reach more people because the technology has allowed them to,” he said.

Typically, perpetrators send out hundreds or thousands of e-mails, faxes or phone calls saying they are Nigerian dignitaries with millions of dollars that need to be transferred out of the country. The correspondences originate from countries all over the world.

The perpetrators request the victims’ bank account information to transfer the funds. Often, they also request money in advance to bribe government officials.

According to the Internet Fraud Complaint Center’s 2001 Internet Fraud Report, Nigerian letter fraud made up approximately 15.5 percent of all Internet fraud schemes reported to the center in 2001.

Mark Rotenberg, University general counsel, said Nigerian letter fraud is the most common type of scam reported to his office.

Some faculty members said they receive one of the e-mails daily or weekly. An entire class discussion group was bombarded one semester, said Shelley Carthen-Watson, associate general counsel.

She said she thinks her office only hears from a fraction of those who receive the e-mail.

Many of the people who contact general counsel want to know if the scheme is legitimate, Rotenberg said.

Maren Ovre, a women’s studies senior, said she received a
Nigerian-letter-fraud e-mail a few days after Sept. 11 from a man who said he worked for the Nigerian National Petroleum Company and needed to transfer $21.5 million out of the country.

“I instantly thought that it was either a joke or that it was serious to ward off the repercussions of nine-11,” she said.

Ovre said she did not respond to the e-mail because she thought it was illegal or a scam. She said she was unaware the scheme was widespread.

“The key advice is to not correspond with these people and be sure not to give them any financial information,” Rotenberg said.

University police turn over all Nigerian-letter-fraud reports to the U.S. Secret Service, which handles the most Nigerian letter fraud complaints nationally.

The agency opens two or three cases per year for people who have lost money in the fraud scheme.

Most referrals to the Secret Service are from people who have received the e-mail but did not respond. The agency is only able to start a case when money has been lost, Suekawa said.

But Suekawa said it’s important to forward any e-mails to the Secret Service even if no crime occurs. Potentially, agents can search a location for suspects and confiscate computers that might contain incriminating evidence, he said.

The Secret Service doesn’t have the authority to search buildings or make arrests in other countries but works with their governments on the cases.

Suekawa said he thinks most people who lose money don’t contact policing agencies because of embarrassment or fear they have done something wrong.

Joanna Dornfeld welcomes comments at [email protected]