How Advance Fee Fraud Works

After a victim responds positively to an AFF letter by sending the required documentation (for example, signed company letterheads, bank account number, etc.) the hook is in. The primary reason for the documentation is not to rob the victim’s bank account, but to perpetuate the illusion that the deal is legitimate and moving forward. The blank signed letterheads are altered and used by the criminals as props in other frauds, letters of reference to obtain visas, or sold to other AFF criminals.

For the next week to 10 days, the perpetrators establish a level of trust with the victim. This is accomplished by sending the victim more “official” documentation verifying the bonafides of the deal and the people involved. The criminals will correspond with the victim via fax machines and courier mail because it is difficult to trace. In the past, these criminals made extensive use of business centers in Lagos to place phone calls and send faxes, but the Nigerian Government reports—and evidence seems to confirm—that business centers were closed in an effort to thwart AFF scams.

The criminals also conduct the scams from their homes or other locations (front companies). To ensure the integrity of the phone lines at those locations, they will gain access to active telephone lines. The telephone lines were either abandoned by the owner who could no longer afford it, or are used without the knowledge or consent of the owner. Therefore, a criminal will use a phone line that is registered to someone living in another part of the city, making it almost impossible to trace.
What happens next is the most crucial point in the fraud and can take a number of directions. A victim will be advised that the deal is near completion, however, an emergency has arisen and money is needed to pay an unforeseen government fee or tax before the money can be released. If the fee is paid, the criminals will come up with another “problem” that requires immediate payment by the victim. Each problem” is supported by “official” documentation.

The criminals can run this ruse for months or even years, depending on the gullibility of the victim or his or her desperation to recoup losses. One Western diplomat described it as “kind of like gambling. You get in so deep you keep putting money in to get something out of it.” At some point during the fraud, the criminals will attempt to have the victim travel to Nigeria or a bordering country to finalize the contract, money transfer, or other transaction. If the victim appears reluctant to go to Nigeria, the criminals will suggest a neutral country where an AFF team, unbeknownst to the victim, is already established. The AFF team will not target a victim in the victim’s own country where they have established roots and can easily check on the validity of the scam.

Travel to Nigeria

In some instances, prior to coming to Nigeria, the criminals will tell a victim to bring expensive watches, pens, and men’s suits as “gifts.” Proceeds from these items are kept by the criminals. The criminals may tell the victim that a visa is not required to enter Nigeria, or a visa has been arranged to be issued upon arrival. Without exception, a valid Nigerian visa is required for entry and departure, and airport visas are not available. Travel to Nigeria should not be undertaken without first verifying the bona fides of a company or business partners. If a victim meets the criminals in a bordering country, the victim may find that he or she still must travel to Lagos. Entry without a visa gives the criminals leverage over the victim and leads to other forms of extortion.

Once in Lagos, the victim will be housed in one of the many small hotels (euphemistically known as “419” hotels), located primarily around Murtala Muhammad Airport. At this point, the victim is totally immersed in the scam, and the criminals have total control over the victim’s every move. The victim is taken to meetings with criminals posing as Nigerian Government officials, or possibly corrupt government officials, to finalize the deal. The meetings can take place in government offices or annexes that are “rented” by the criminals or in a office that is setup to resemble a government office. These offices are often located near government buildings to add authenticity to the fraud. If the victim is sufficiently duped by this elaborate ruse, he or she returns home unharmed and the scam continues. However, if the victim decides not to pay additional payments and/or sign a contract, the victim will be subjected to threats and physical abuse until he or she arranges for more payments.

Neutral Country

If the victim is reluctant to go to Nigeria, the criminals will suggest a neutral country where a team is already established. The victim will be requested to provide them with his or her flight itinerary and the name of the hotel he or she will be staying.

This is the first step in controlling the victim’s movements during the scam.
Operating under the guise that the business contacts are in Nigeria, the criminals will have the victim send roundtrip airline tickets from Lagos to the neutral country for face-to-face meetings with business contacts. The victim is also requested to reserve hotel rooms in his or her name for the contacts. The hotel rooms are never in the same hotel as the victim’s. The criminals will cash the airline tickets, and use the hotel rooms, which are reserved under the name of a legitimate business person, or his or her company, in other scams or sell to another AFF criminals.

Surprisingly, nine out of ten victims comply with this request. Meetings will be setup in areas of the city unfamiliar to the victim. To keep the victim off balance and allow the criminals time to conduct counter-surveillance, the criminals will schedule and cancel a number of meetings with the victim. Whether the victim decides not to pursue the “deal” or at some point during a scam, the victim stops paying, the criminals will not walk away from the victim. They will attempt to re-consummate the fraud using various ruses. The AFF criminals might pose as Nigerian Government officials attempting to get the victim’s money back or try to convince the victim that they are the legitimate government officials and the other men he or she dealt with were frauds. Re-victimization will be perpetrated either by the original criminals, or sold to another AFF team to operate.

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