African e-mail con men convicted in the Netherlands

Six men from Nigeria and Benin were convicted of fraud by a Dutch court on Wednesday and received prison sentences of between 301 days and 4.5 years, a court official said.

Two of the convicted con men, including the suspected leader of the group, also each have to return €205,702 (US$245,000) to one of their victims, the court ruled according to the official.

The six were accused of sending thousands of e-mail messages, faxes and letters to people all over the world and making up various stories to lure people to Amsterdam, from where they operated. The victims were told that their help was needed to transfer money or that they had won a lottery, according to the charges read during a court session earlier this month.

Most Internet users will be familiar with the e-mail messages that the six men from Nigeria and Benin wrote. The "419 Fraud" or "Advance Fee Fraud," as the scams are called, have been around since the early 1980s, but it is only in the past few years that the fraudsters turned to the Internet.

The senders of the e-mail messages often purport to be family members of a former African dictator in need of help to funnel money out of the country. In return for the help, they promise between 10 percent and 25 percent of the fortune. In fact, the only people who make money out of the whole operation are the scammers asking for help.

To most Internet users, the fraud is pretty obvious and they delete the messages immediately. Others, however, fall for the fake lucrative proposals, as the Dutch court case shows.

One of the victims, a man from Russia, was lured into paying thousands of dollars after the fraudsters told him he had won an Internet lottery. Not only did he pay a "transfer fee," but also fees for a "non drugs statement" that was required according to the West-African con artists. The victim discovered that he had been scammed only after he was told to pay $35,000 for a "non terrorism statement," according to the charges.

Another victim, a Swiss professor, gave the scammers $482,000 after he was told he would receive US$9 million for his help with laundering millions of dollars. The Swiss man paid, among other things, for chemicals that the scammers said were necessary for "cleaning" the bank notes, according to the charges.

Eventually the Swiss professor helped the Dutch police by luring five of the six fraudsters to a train station in Amsterdam, where they were arrested in the summer of 2002. The sixth man was arrested a few months later, it became clear during the court hearing.

Most of the accused did not testify at the trial, but the suspected leader claimed he had nothing to do with the criminal organization. He apparently did not have a convincing explanation for the scam letters found on his computer and the names of victims showing up in his agenda.

How much money the six men made from their operations is still unclear. Dutch police estimate that the scammers made millions of euros.

"Over 20 people informed the police, but we think that is only a tip of the iceberg," a spokesman for the prosecution said.

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Maarten Reijnders

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