Scams designed to bilk millions of dollars from Northern Nevada residents are thriving, according to James Deal, a U.S. Secret Service agent in Reno.
A letter received at the Nevada Appeal last week, addressed to Arne Hoel, president of Swift publications, was identified as a hoax by officials at both the Nevada Attorney General's Office and the Secret Service.
David Schoeppler, owner of Star Realty in Carson City, received an identical letter, but with a different return address.
"These people are assuming the recipient is extremely naive," Schoeppler said. "It's scary to think of elderly people with cash in their checking account finding themselves illegally drained of all their money. This is a dangerous precedent."
According to the letter, South African officials illegally charged $21 million over the actual costs for government contracts. The money is being held in a South African account and the authors are asking local residents to launder that money in their private bank accounts. Those willing to cooperate would allegedly receive 25 percent of whatever sum is deposited.
To complete the transaction, the "South Africans" ask for extensive confidential information, including a bank address and account number, so they can forward the money to the United States.
The premise may sound shaky, but the scam works. Most people throw the letters away, but some are taken in and it doesn't take many for a successful scam, Deal said.
Stolen credit card numbers are used to access e-mail accounts. Postage isn't a problem since counterfeit stamps are used.
"Life savings have been lost and the activity continues to grow, because of the one in 100 that actually bites," Deal said. "They rob us daily without ever having set foot in the United States. They plug their laptops in at Internet cafes and pull in $15,000 to $20,000 using e-mail.
"All we can do is tell the public not to respond. These criminals are a nuisance and there is nothing to be gained," he said. "They are asking you to take part in a crime and they are targeting you for a reason. Once you bite, it gets worse."
Once these criminals have a victims' identifying information, they can open accounts and commit crimes in victims' names in addition to draining accounts, Deal said.
He said a Florida resident killed himself after losing his life savings: $750,000.
Company executives are often targeted. It's easy to get the principal of any corporation off the Internet. The problem doesn't stop at U.S. borders, Deal said.
"These letters flooded Europe for years, but the money has dried up because the scam is common knowledge," he said. "For some reason, even though the scam was exposed on '60 Minutes,' the American public continues to bite."
Anyone receiving one of these or other suspicious letters should contact the Secret Service in Reno at 784-5354. E-mail scams can be forwarded to the Secret Service at firstname.lastname@example.org