It was Emma Weibel’s lucky day.
The Lake Oswego, Ore., resident received a letter from someone named Mike Ross informing her that an Aneta Weibel had died and left a $6-million estate. Ross said he wanted to have Emma declared Aneta’s next of kin so she could inherit the bulk of the money, with a modest portion for him for his efforts.
“The whole thing is, of course, a hoax,” Weibel, 79, told me. “But I can see this could be taken seriously by some people.”
I can see that too.
As it happens, my wife received a similar letter recently, and for the last few weeks I’ve been corresponding by email and speaking on the phone with the scammers.
This led me down the rabbit hole of an impressively elaborate fraud involving multiple characters; bogus medical, court and shipping documents; and repeated assurances that my wife and I were on the verge of enormous wealth.
The FBI calls these advance-fee schemes, in which victims pay up front for an expected opportunity or financial windfall. Such ploys resulted in almost $58 million in reported losses last year.
“The variety of advance-fee schemes is limited only by the imagination of the con artists who offer them,” the bureau says.
Ours began with a snail-mail letter from Brian Cooks at the Co-operative Bank in London, which is a real bank. He identified himself as the former personal funds manager for Matsu Lazarus, who “died some years back with his wife and only son while holidaying in Burma,” a.k.a. Myanmar.
A recent audit turned up a dormant account containing $25 million, Cooks said, and it appeared my wife was the closest thing Matsu Lazarus had to a next of kin. He was prepared to nominate her as his deceased client’s sole legal heir.
Overlooking the fact that Lazarus is my wife’s married name, making it impossible for her to be the next of kin of anyone with the surname, this was very exciting news.
I emailed Cooks, who was using a Gmail account, and told him we were thrilled to hear of our good fortune. What did we need to do?
This began a near-daily correspondence in which Cooks kept us updated on his efforts. I kept waiting for him to spring the trap and ask for us to send him money, but the request didn’t come.
Instead we received a copy of Matsu Lazarus’ purported death certificate, as issued by Bawga Theiddhi Hospital in Myanmar. It’s a real hospital but, not surprisingly, couldn’t be reached to confirm the document.
My favorite part of the certificate is the cause of death: “Injuries from ghastly road traffic accident.” The Myanmarese must be a colorfully descriptive people.
This was followed by undoubtedly Photoshopped documents from the London Probate Registry and the High Court of England & Wales declaring my wife the official next of kin of Matsu Lazarus.
Then came some probate materials and a form from the Co-operative Bank confirming that the transaction was being processed.
Throughout, Cooks said he was spending an extraordinary amount of time and energy on this matter, and I thanked him profusely. He finally said we needed to talk about how my wife and I would take possession of the $25 million. I gave him my work number.
When he called, I could hear an accent, but not a British one. Many advance-fee scams are known to originate in Nigeria and other West African countries.
After the usual pleasantries and my repeating how grateful we were for Cooks’ diligence, he explained that the money couldn’t be wired to our bank in the United States because it was, in fact, all in cash — literally, $25 million, all in bills, like on a Costco pallet.
For tax reasons, he said, it would be best for us to keep things this way and physically move the big pile of currency from England to Los Angeles.
This wasn’t Cooks’ first rodeo. He said he knew a London-based diplomat from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia who could bring the money to the United States in a diplomatic pouch. We’re talking three or four boxes of $100 bills, but whatever.
Five minutes after I got off the phone with Cooks, I received a call from the diplomat, who identified himself as Marvin Smith. His accent wasn’t West Indian. It sounded like Cooks’.
I asked Smith where Saint Lucia is located and he said it’s in British Samoa, which doesn’t exist, although there’s an American Samoa in the South Pacific.
Smith said the plan was for him to fly with the cash in a private jet to Atlanta, where Saint Lucia has a chancellery, which it does not.
I received an email with an “airway bill” from Diplomatic Courier Services HK, which isn’t a real company, showing that the Honorable Marvin Smith was flying from England to Atlanta with unspecified “family treasures.”
A day later, good news: Smith called to say he was in Atlanta with the money. Now all we needed was to get the boxes out of a bonded warehouse. Smith said he was relying on a local contractor employed by his chancellery to make this happen.
I soon received a call from the contractor, Joseph Jackson, who had the same accent as the others. I told him how delighted I was with the way things were proceeding.
“This is what I do for a living,” Jackson replied. “I have done this plenty of times.”
I had no doubt.
And now that the hook had been patiently baited for weeks, it was time to reel me in.
Jackson said he’d need $18,950 to pay the duty fee for the boxes. Compared to the $25 million that was waiting, he stressed, this was a paltry sum.
I said I understood his point, but $18,950 was a lot of money for me. Would it be possible for me to pay half up front and the other half after I received the cash?
Jackson thought it over. “You sound like a nice person,” he decided. “I don’t know you but I like you.”
He said he’d accept $12,000 up front, with the remainder to follow. I said I’d have to think about that.
When Jackson called the next day, I said my funds were a little tight. How about if I paid $6,000 up front? Jackson said he’d need to speak with his supervisor.
He called back to say they could make it work for $6,633. I said I could handle that. Jackson told me I’d hear from Smith about making the payment.
Smith called shortly afterward. He said he was very pleased that everything had worked out. He emailed me information about the bank account where I could wire the money.
By this time, I was dazzled by the lengths to which these guys had gone to convince me everything was on the up and up. I’d spoken with three different people. I had a stack of official-looking documents. I’d invested a serious amount of time into pulling off the deal.
Yeah, I could easily see how millions of dollars might be swindled annually from people, particularly those who may not check on pesky details such as the existence of British Samoa.
When Smith called back a day later to ask why I hadn’t wired the money, I told him let’s stop playing games. I confessed I’d been yanking his chain for weeks, just as he’d been yanking mine, and I asked how often people fell for this scam.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied. “It’s no scam.”
Of course it’s a scam, I said. I just want to know how often it succeeds.
There was a long pause. Finally Smith asked, “Are we doing this or not doing this?”
Not doing this, I answered. The phone went dead.
An email arrived the next day from Brian Cooks, the banker, inquiring about “the status of the consignment.” I wrote back to say he was welcome to call me; he had the number.