Could You Unwittingly Become a Prince’s Mule?

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News out of Slidell, Louisiana has the Internet buzzing with tales of Nigerian Princes. In late 2017, police in Slidell arrested an area resident in connection with an email scam that funneled cash to Nigeria.

The Advance Fee Scams

Data security experts will recognize the connection between Nigeria and the proliferation of advance fee scams. Here, a victim is promised a significant share of a large sum of money; however, to obtain the money, victims are required to submit a small, upfront payment. Once the funds are paid, the scammer and the money disappear.

These advance fee scams are so commonly tied with Nigeria that they have become known as 419s—a reference to that nation’s criminal code. Decades ago, this scam came in the form of letters claiming to need help and a willingness to share profits. While these letters riddled with grammatical errors are gone, the scams live on.

The Slidell Story

The Slidell Police Department’s (SPD) Facebook page outlines how this particular scam unraveled. SPD began investigating in mid-2016 after receiving a complaint from police in Dodge City, Kansas.

A resident of Dodge City fell for what’s often called a “Nigerian Prince email scam.” In general terms, these scams lay out an implausible situation such as a prince, who is willing to share the profits, needing help from a stranger to move money from his country. In this case, the resident sent funds to a middleman in Slidell. This individual received the cash and forwarded the bulk of it to another country, keeping a small percentage as his fee.

Police have determined that the middleman worked with a person he met via Facebook who went by the name of Maria Mendez. This is likely an alias for a person working out of Nigeria. She allegedly sent out thousands of communications each day via email, text, or online messaging. A variety of scams were used, with the middleman making at least $250,000 in fraudulent transactions.

The Mule

For this scam to work, there has to be a middleman or mule to collect funds and send it to the other country. Mules are often used in income tax refund fraud and other money grabs, and regularly recruited on free job listing boards lured by the promise of cash.

Generally, it is impossible to get back or even trace the lost funds in an advance fee scam, but there’s a silver lining in the Slidell case. The middleman used Western Union for his operation until his account was frozen for suspicious activity.

In late 2017, the Federal Trade Commission announced a major settlement with Western Union that created a pot of $586 million for victim refunds. If you know someone who was scammed between 2004 and January 2017 and used Western Union to send funds, they should consider filing a claim as soon as possible. The deadline to file is May 21, 2018.

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