Thursday, November 11, 2004

Connecticut Real Estate and the Nigerian Connection

Connecticut Real Estate and the Nigerian Connection

Over a year ago, my wife and I moved to a new town in Connecticut, horrified by the budget-related deterioration of our public school system. It was literally the best move we ever made. Continue...

The only drawback was that even now, a year later, we haven't been able to sell our old house. We've dropped the price three times, but nonetheless haven't had so much as a nibble of interest (maybe because nobody is particularly interested in moving to a town with a deteriorating public school system).

Anyway, you can imagine our delight when our realtor called to say that we'd received an incredible offer from a buyer: full asking price, cash on the table, with the deal to close in one week. My wife and I hung up the phone, stared at each other in disbelief, and then looked around for a chicken to sacrifice to the real-estate gods.

Our euphoria was soon cooled, however, by a few mysterious red flags. First, the woman who wanted to buy the house showed up for the inspection — but didn't have enough money to pay the inspector. Odd.

Second, the inspector found a few small things that needed fixing — but the buyer didn't ask to have them taken care of before the closing. Unusual.

Finally, our lawyer told us that the woman didn't expect to have the funds until the day before the closing. Peculiar.

We figured that something was a tad fishy about the whole thing, but what are you gonna do? We decided to play along, just in case she was for real. Now, by this point, you're probably wondering what any of this has to do with technology (the ostensible topic of this weekly newsletter). Here it comes.

Sure enough, the closing never took place. The woman called the realtors and lawyers, apologized, and let them know that the money she was expecting never arrived.

"I just can't understand what went wrong," she told them. "I was ASSURED that the money was on its way. The Nigerian lawyer PROMISED!"

My jaw fell open so far it practically dented the floor. I didn't know whether to cry, sue or laugh hysterically. It turns out that this poor, deluded soul had fallen for one of the most widely perpetrated — and, I thought, most widely known — Internet scams on earth. "DEAR SIR OR MADAM," the spam e-mail message begins.

"I am Ahmed Jaidi a solicitor at law. I am the personal attorney to Mr.Mark O'Reilly, a national of your country, who used to work with Chevron Oil Company in Nigeria.

"On the 21st of April 1999, my client Mr. Mark O'Reilly and his family was involved in a fatal auto crash in Lagos. I am contacting you to assist in repatriating the money and property left behind by my client. Particularly, the finance company where the deceased had an account valued at about $14.7 million dollars.

"Since I have been unsuccessful in locating the relatives for over 4 years now, I seek your consent to present you as the next of kin, so that the $14.7 million dollars can be paid to you, and then you and me can share the money, 60% to me and 40% to you."

If you're clueless enough to contact the spammer, he leads you on for a few weeks with paperwork and those dizzying dollar amounts, getting you so excited about your upcoming wealth that you may even make plans to buy a new house in Connecticut.

Of course, a few weeks in, Mr. Jaidi (or whatever the bogus name is) reports that he needs just a few thousand dollars to grease the palms of the Nigerian finance department to get this deal wrapped up. With visions of a new life dancing in your head, you fork over $3,000 here, $2500 there. And then, of course, you never hear from the guy again.

I'm guessing that anyone savvy enough to sign up for a technology newsletter is smart enough not to fall for such a simple scam. But if you're ever in doubt about this or any other e-mailed pitch, I beg of you to check it out first at www.snopes.com. It's a clearinghouse of urban myths and Internet scams. You might also want to check out a recent Circuits article about e-mail vigilantes who turn the tables on the scammers: Turning The Tables On E-Mail Swindlers.

I sort of wish it weren't called www.snopes.com, because that address makes little sense and doesn't clue anyone in to its actual purpose. But it's a great site, a well-researched encyclopedia and a highly entertaining read. Whether it's a million-dollar windfall from Nigeria or an unexpected full-price house offer, you can see this story's moral coming a mile away. "If it's too good to be true..."

Visit David Pogue on the Web at DavidPogue.com.

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