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LEGAL MATTERS: How To Protect Yourself From Online Scams

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


The numbers 419 come from the Nigerian penal code, but have come to stand for a whole host of scams perpetrated online.

The number 419 is internationally known as the “Advanced Fee Fraud.”  The name comes from Section 419 of the Nigerian Penal Code, but as anyone can tell you it has become a worldwide problem.

The scam has almost unlimited variations:

A scam seller of a car tells the buyer the car is out of state and convinces the buyer to wire payment for the vehicle or acquires enough information from the buyer to steal their identity. Sometimes, the scam artist does both.  Of course, the vehicle was never for sale; photos of the car were lifted off an internet site. The victim buyer never hears from the seller again.

A scam buyer contacts a seller and offers to buy the item for sale. Frequently, the buyer claims some third party owes them money and will be sending a certified bank check for the price of the item. The buyer tells the seller that included in the check is the remainder of what is owed by the third party to the scam buyer. The buyer tells the seller to cash the check, keep the cost of the item and wire the leftover money to the buyer. After the excess money is wired, the seller finds out that the certified check was actually a counterfeit and no one ever comes to pick up the item.

The target of the scam receives a communication asking for help in the transfer of a large sum of money. Usually the assistance is needed because some unauthorized act is required to access the funds. When the target agrees they are told that money is needed to clear some “obstacle” -- a bank fee billable to a government official or any number of “problems”. As long as the target continues to send money to clear obstacles, new obstacles crop up. Of course, there never was any money fund.

There are even reports of law firms being scammed. Supposedly, the firm was hired by someone to collect a large debt. Once the firm entered the picture, the alleged debtor soon agreed to pay up. A certified bank check settling the debt was sent to the law firm. The “client” needed its funds wired to its “home office” and once the funds were transferred the law firm later learned the certified bank check was a forgery.

While it may seem that no one could ever be foolish enough to fall victim to such a scam, millions of dollars have been scammed this way. Next week I’ll explain some ways you can protect yourself from falling victim to 419 scams.

Sean P. Feeney is a partner with the Law Firm of Hamel, Waxler, Allen & Collins. He is admitted to practice in Rhode Island, Illinois and Wisconsin. Mr. Feeney is a former special counsel to the City of Providence, military prosecutor with the United States Marine Corps and Special Assistant United States Attorney for the Central District of California.


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