Long before I joined the Metropolitan Police Fraud Squad I has fascinated by the concept of deception. How did apparently clever, even street-wise people get caught out by deceivers? Deception takes many forms, of course, this article is about the one-off deception, the sort that ruins lives, where the loss is the life savings, sometimes more, as I will explain. I want to start this tale at the end, the anguish of the victim.
The victim’s choice
My experience of hundreds of cases boils down to one common thread. At the point where the victim gets to choose, the choice made by the victim is irrelevant. This is because the deceiver has created an environment in which the victim believes they have to make a choice, they are so distracted by that choice that they fail to see the environment that the deceiver has created. In fact, whichever card they choose the Queen is no longer there at all. The choice feels wrong and risky but the victim is so ensnared that they focus, wrongly, on the detail, not the bigger picture. If you are reading this and it sounds all too familiar, including pressure to make a choice you are not happy with, get some third-party advice right now, don’t make the choice alone.
This is going to hurt
Being deceived may be completely painless; it only hurts when the deceit is discovered by the victim. The realisation that you have been deceived typically has two distinct stages. The first is to believe that you, the victim, have willingly made a stupid choice, so you feel, er, stupid. Depending on the severity of the loss this may easy to cope with; everyone makes mistakes and it is easy to categorise the wrong choice as a mistake and put it down to experience.
As you analyse your mistake, following it back to the actual circumstances of the choice, the second phase kicks in. This is the suspicion that you have been manipulated. For the deception to work the victim has trusted the deceiver, at least temporarily, long enough to make the choice. The first feeling of having made a mistake is replaced by doubt, then denial. Denial is an incredibly resilient feeling, many victims never get beyond it, remaining vulnerable to further manipulation. Some people wrestle with the fact they have been deceived and choose denial.
Others choose, or are forced, to face the facts. It is normally a brutal realisation. The psychological trauma of betrayal, strikes at the self-esteem of the victim. It makes the victim doubt their own ability to make good choices about people, one of the key things about being human at all. If the trust has been held for a long time the psychological damage may be commensurately deep. Many people never get over it.
It’s a classic.
Let’s consider a classic fraud, the ‘Nigerian 419.’ The moniker ‘419’ is the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that covers ‘obtaining goods by false pretences’. The earliest 419 letter, for which I have an eye witness, was delivered (using a forged stamp) in 1960. This is also known as Advanced Fee Fraud, giving a clue as to how it works. Before you dismiss this as an obvious fraud that only a fool would fall for and abandon all sympathy, consider, as I have had to do, that victims sometimes commit suicide. Sometimes victims have borrowed from sympathetic friends who have, in turn, been financially ruined; companies have gone bust and ordinary people lost their livelihoods when desperate company owners, clutching at straws, have temporarily lost their senses and succumbed to a 419.
The hook at the end of the line
There a number of variations to the fraud but essentially the recipient receives an unsolicited written communication (email, letter, etc) that says that a very large amount of money exists and that if the recipient provides some modest assistance they will be handsomely rewarded with some or all of the money. The recipient has been selected through some connection which appears to the victim to be a case of mistaken identity, a long-lost relative for example. The communication contains simple grammatical or spelling mistakes to snare the casual white supremacist.
A very, very small number of recipients reply but that is all that is needed to make the fraud valid. Twenty years ago, internal guestimates at the Metropolitan Police Fraud Squad were that London received at least 250,000 emails per year. I received one myself at “@ara.gov.uk” when I was working in the Assets Recovery Agency building. Nowhere is out of bounds.
Hang on, what was that about supremacist? Well, this is part of the deception. The deceiver’s objective is to create the environment where the victim makes a choice. Supremacy may be factor in the victim’s first wrong choice. So, why do people respond to this unsolicited email? It is conceivable, but massively unlikely, that a victim did indeed have a long-lost relative who went to Nigeria to seek their fortune! OK let’s discard that idea. Anyway, aside from that, the ‘victim’ responds for one reason: they think they may make some money. You will notice that the ‘victim’ has suddenly gained some inverted commas. The money will derive from taking part in what looks like a deception of some kind, why else would an innocent passer-by be needed? The victim assesses that they will be able to outwit the sender. This belief is suggested by the poor English, the money trapped by some form of corrupt African bureaucracy, the need for a good, clean “superior” British bank account.
At this point I should make clear that 419 fraud is not exclusively committed by Nigerians from Nigeria. It could be committed from anywhere in the world by anyone. The Nigerians are just better at it than anyone else, in my humble opinion. Which is why you should never, ever respond to one of these emails. OK, unless you have thoroughly researched www.419eater.com and have time on your hands. Crime Prevention Warning! You might encounter some dim fraudsters like the ones shown on 419eater, but you might just come across the real thing. I warned you, OK?
So, the victim responds; what happens next? Think of the deceivers as anglers, once hooked into replying the victim is lured to a meeting to hand over the Advance Fee. The Advance Fee is the relatively small fee that is needed to secure the release of the principal sum, this is variously described as administrative, an indemnity, insurance, tax or storage fee but often the implication is that it is a bribe to the holder of the money. I say ‘relatively’ small because the principal sum may well be in the tens of millions. So, £50,000 to secure £50m sounds like a ‘relatively’ small price to pay.
Hook, line and sinker
The components that make up an Advance Fee fraud are summarised below, some or occasionally all of them may be present:
- A victim who is vulnerable. This may be a simple personality trait like greed or a mistaken sense of superiority; but it may be financial desperation.
- A principal sum that is ridiculously large, derived from some foreign activity that can’t be checked
- The principal sum cannot be accessed because of some clever sounding, but meaningless, financial or fiscal term or acronym.
- There is compelling (but false) evidence that the principal sum exists. This could include a site visit to a smart-looking office.
- The meeting where the Advance Fee is to be paid by the victim is in a country or city that is unfamiliar to the victim (this is to disorient the victim and make them less likely to seek help from the authorities)
- Plausible, legitimate sounding companies that are in possession of the principal sum; this can be created by smart receptions, but is can be just a misspelling of a legitimate company in communications.
- Urgency, the release of the principal sum ‘is only available for a short time’
- Threats of possible police/ tax action which appear to threaten the final payment, to create a false sense of urgency.
- The victim has no traceable contact details for the suspect.
As a footnote to the above, consider Romance Scams. The methodology is exactly the same except the victim believes that they are taking part in a romance rather than a conspiracy. If this list resonates with your own circumstances, get third-party help now.
Who are you going to call?
One aspect of Advance Fee fraud is how law enforcement authorities respond. One of the common features of the crime is that the victim (at the point of actual payment) is abroad. The act of handing over of the money may make the victim realise that they have been duped and causes them to present to the police. From a police perspective the victim is foreign and the enquiry has immediate international implications. This may reduce interest. It is possible that the victim’s explanation may be viewed as a confession to participating in a conspiracy (which may be the case, when you think about it) and the victim may be treated as a suspect.
The UK do not take this view by the way, but investigating advance fee frauds is time consuming and requires specialist knowledge. These factors may influence the police approach.
The most interesting thing, to me, is the tenacity of victims to believe that they have not been conned. I suppose it must be part of the human mechanism to cope with realising that they have been betrayed, coupled with reduced self-esteem arising from their own misplaced trust in their betrayer.
Coping with victimhood may include:
- An irrational belief that the suspect may relent
- An irrational belief that their money will be recovered
- A continued belief that some aspect of the situation constructed by the suspect is true.
These coping mechanisms serve to raise false hope and increase victimhood in my view, creating a deeper spiral for the victim and hindering their recovery. It would be better to go through the pain of accepting that the suspect created a completely fabricated environment, but that you are not to blame for failing to see it. They are the professional fraudster, not you.
Victimhood in action
As an example, I was told the following tale: A victim, attending the trial of his Nigerian deceivers at a London Crown Court was waiting in the public corridor after giving evidence. He was approached by a smartly dressed man who flashed an official-looking badge and explained that he was a Nigerian Federal Police officer, who had information about where the victim’s advance fee had gone and wished to help him retrieve it. Could they discuss it in a nearby waiting room? In the quiet of the room, the softly spoken officer explained the excellent news that the money had been recovered and was being held by the Federal Police. Furthermore, the police clerk in charge of the account could release it back to the victim, without the bureaucracy of a court hearing. The clerk and the officer would merely want the victim to cover the expenses of the officer’s travel from Nigeria with this good news and the clerk’s expenses of travel from Nigeria with the cash. To show good faith the officer showed the victim official papers of his Agency including the bank account into which the expenses payment could be made. Unfortunately, the bank transfer had to be made immediately because the clerk was being transferred to another job, after which he would no longer be able to help. The officer was very sorry that it had taken so long to find the victim as he had had to raise the money to pay for his airfare to see the victim, which was difficult as police officers were so poorly paid in Nigeria. The victim noted down the account numbers with a view to making the transfer.
At this point the British officer in the case, opened the door, having been looking for his witness, who had disappeared from outside the court. The Nigerian officer stood up shook the officer’s hand and walked straight out, never to be seen again. Meanwhile the victim was explaining the good news about the excellent Federal Police of Nigeria….
The piece above uses the example of a classic “419” or “Advance Fee” fraud but it is entirely possible to draw generalisations to other, more mainstream, activities. I have mentioned Romance Scams, but consider also hard sales techniques or political campaigning, which share some of the features that I have outlined.