I've Got This Bridge I'd Like To Sell You

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are reprinting a column from 2003.

I realized I had finally made my mark in the world when I received my very own Nigerian scam letter, addressed to me at my office eight years ago. When Nigerian scam artists put your name on a letter, rather than addressing it with an impersonal "Dear Friend," you've obviously done something important.

At least that's what I tell myself.

But there it was, in a pile of mail, directly from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

Keep in mind, this was in 1995, before crooks realized the email was a much cheaper and easier way to swindle people. This was back in the day of fax machines and the post office.

"Grandpa, tell us a story about how crooks used to swindle people with pen and paper."

Nowadays, the crooks use email to blanket hundreds of thousands of people. But back in 1995, they used word processors and stamps to regale me with their tales of woe, of how they had $75 million in the bank from some huge petroleum deal, but thanks to those greedy Nigerian politicians, they couldn't move a single dime out of the country.

But if I, Erik Deckers, would help them, I could have HALF the money! And it was so simple.

All I had to do was mail them my company's bank account number and 10 blank pieces of company letterhead with my signature on it. They would send letters to my bank, dumping all the money into my account. Then I was supposed to send half of it to another bank in another country.

This was it! I was going to be rich! I was going to be wealthy!

I was going to be amazingly stupid if I sent them anything.

There was no big oil deal, there was no $75 million, and there certainly was no way anyone was going to give me $37.5 million for 10 pieces of paper.

It was an obvious scam. I realized it the first time I ever saw the letter. No one is stupid enough to fall for this, I declared.

Apparently, I'm wrong.

The Nigerian scam, known simply as "419," after the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code on fraud, is the third largest industry in Nigeria. Although there are hundreds of variations, and the crooks are more sophisticated then they were seven years ago, victims are usually asked up pay an up-front fee, transfer tax, performance bond, etc.

Then there are complications which need additional payments. Eventually the victim will run out of money, but will have no legal recourse in getting their money back. And the losses run in the hundreds of millions worldwide.

It's such a big problem that the US Secret Service website (ICouldTellYouTheAddressButI'dHaveToKillYou.gov) covers this problem extensively, because they hear about it all the time. In 2002, Americans sent 38,000 letters and 346,000 emails to the Secret Service, alerting them to the different schemes they received.

One Secret Service spokesman said to reporters "How'd they find out where we were? I thought we were the SECRET service."

Although I feel sorry for some of the people who fall for the scam and lose thousands of dollars, there's one guy who probably deserved what happened to him.

According to a recent story in the Winona (Minnesota) Post, 58-year-old Carl Fratzke faces up to 70 years in prison and/or a $140,000 fine if he's convicted on seven counts of "theft by swindle."

That's one count for each of the seven people who say Fratzke cheated them out of $207,000 in 2000 by promising them to buy $500,000 worth of gloves and then selling them for $1.2 million to Wal-Mart. The seven would-be investors realized there was a problem when Fratzke didn't show up with their money 30 days later, like he had promised.

So in May 2001, they scheduled a meeting with Fratzke to find out what happened to their investment, but he failed to show up (no big surprise there). Instead he left them a note saying that he had invested their money, plus $550,000 OF HIS OWN MONEY in a Nigerian scam and lost it all.

One has to chuckle at the irony. Actually one has to point their finger at Fratzke and laugh outright at the irony.

Oh sure, I feel bad for the seven people who lost anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000 apiece, because they'll never get their money back. But my faith in a fair and balanced universe is restored when crooks like Fratzke lose gobs of money to people just like himself, before finally being tossed in the slammer for the rest of his natural life.

As far as the Nigerian crooks who steal millions and millions of dollars from around the world go, I have a little proposal I'd like to make to them.

I'd like to sell you some stocks from an up-and-coming energy company called Enron.

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is now available. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

My other book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing is also out.

You can get both of them from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million in October, or for the Kindle or Nook.


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